It’s time to get rid of your Real Book.


Some exposition, briefly, for the uninitiated: The Real Book is a fake book that was most likely compiled by anonymous Berklee students in the mid 1970s. It contains lead sheets for over a thousand songs across three handwritten volumes that went through 5 bootleg revisions before being legitimized as the “Sixth Edition” by Hal Leonard in 2003. Despite being 40 years old – and having been underground most of its life – it’s the most common fake book that I know of. You can find it at gigs, in high schools and colleges, at jam sessions, and in people’s homes for their personal practice and reference. I would guess that every “jazz” musician reading this has had access to a copy of The Real Book at some point. 

A lot of people are against using fake books like The Real Book because they are cheap ways to learn tunes, and books like The Real Book are frequently unwelcome at jam sessions because Come On Dude, Learn The Tune. I can’t argue with that last bit. It’s a bad look to read from a book at a jam session. Learn The Tune. But lead sheets are good for a number of reasons; I appreciate having a quick reference on hand to clarify the melodies and harmonies for tunes, and appreciate the lead sheet as a way to learn or teach a song on the quick, like on a gig or at a rehearsal. So I am not out to convince anyone not to use fake books or lead sheets.

I am writing this to convince you to stop using The Real Book, specifically. The charts in the bootleg version – widely available on the internet and still very common in print form among musicians my age and older – are inconsistent, sloppy and frequently inaccurate. The legal Sixth Edition fixed many of these problems, but in doing so the new editors have made the Sixth Edition incompatible with older versions, and it still contains more than a few questionably transcribed chord changes and melodies. It also does not include the lyrics of any tunes, so if you are working with a singer who also wants to read the tune, you’re going to need a different book anyway.

We’ll talk about the Sixth Edition in a little bit. But first we need to address those bootleg editions. They are still everywhere, and we need to be done with them. Done Done. Throw-them-in-the-bin done. The closest nonmusical analogy I can think of is if a poorly translated collection of poems became the standard versions of those poems in English, even though the original poems were also in English. And it’s not that The Real Book wanted to simplify songs for people to learn, like a Cliff’s Notes-type thing for musicians; in fact, The Real Book’s versions of tunes were typically more complicated than the original tunes, sometimes in ways that are completely arbitrary. 

In some cases, a standard tune was presented in The Real Book with alternate chord changes in place of the original chord progression with no indication that they are alternate changes. This could pose a problem if someone was reading from the book while another person was playing or singing from memory, or if someone was using the book as a reference. Here is the chart for the Jimmy Van Heusen tune Like Someone In Love:

Like Someone In Love

These are great chord changes, but they’re not the original changes. They’re Coltrane’s changes. Assuming the key of Eb major, measure six should be Bb7 or Bb+7, and measure 7 should be Eb or Eb6 or Ebmaj7. Those are the original chords of the song, and they are the chords that are most commonly played, at least in the 1950s and 1960s recordings of the tune. This is not to say that the altered chords are “wrong.” I love them and think they sound wonderful. But if a book is going to be the standard book for all jazz musicians, the standard chords for a tune should be the chords included in the book, and any alternate chord changes should be indicated as such.

In other cases, the melody for an old standard was written out as someone might freely interpret it instead of how it is generally thought to exist in its pure form. One example of this is Basin St. Blues, from the original Real Book Vol. 2:

I think someone playing this chart note-for-note could probably sound pretty swinging, but that’s clearly not the melody for Basin Street Blues. It’s not even close. Whoever prepared this chart has done the interpreting for you, and it’s a very loose, boozy interpretation. And as a reference it is pretty much useless: the rhythm doesn’t match the unprinted lyrics (eg. the 4th measure of B) and there’s no indication that the A section is a call and response.

Not every older tune was embellished like this; most older standards were transcribed with their original melodies and minimal deviation from their original chord progressions. This doesn’t mean the charts were perfect. Take Rodgers and Hart’s I Could Write A Book, from Pal Joey:

I Could Write A Book

The tune is marked as a Ballad, but it was written as a medium-tempo bounce, and is almost always played as a medium- or up-tempo swing. And even though it says I Could Write A Book is a ballad, the Real Book didn’t recommend any of the great ballad recordings of the tune; Instead it recommended a single recording: Miles Davis’ recording from his Prestige years, which was recorded at a pretty fast tempo. This tune is a great ballad, and a great burner, and a great mid-tempo tune, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to call a tune a ballad and recommend an uptempo recording on the same page.

It would be understandable that a book written by jazz musicians would have mistakes or inconsistencies when it comes to the old popular standards and showtunes. But The Real Book didn’t just get the old standards wrong. It got many jazz songs written by jazz musicians wrong, too. A perfect example of this Blue Train, or “Blue Trane,” as it was famously mis-titled in the Real Book. Blue Train is a classic tune, the title track of one of the most enduring LPs of its era. Here is its page from The Real Book:

Blue Trane

Here is the original recording:

It shouldn’t take a seasoned musician more than a moment to notice several problems. For one, the title of this song should be Blue Train. Blue Train is the name of the song and the name of the album it appeared on. That’s an unacceptable error. Also, the original recording song was performed in the key of Eb, not C, and even though the melody is minor, the solos happen over a standard jazz blues, which means the first chord of the solos should be notated  C7, not C-. Even if you accept C minor as the key of the tune, there are all sorts of invented harmonies in the Real Book’s Blue Trane that have no correlation to chords played on the original Blue Train recording, including the phantom F-7 Bb7 notated under the pickup measure and the completely arbitrary A-7 D7 in measure 8. Even the melody is incorrect: compare measure 8 of the original recording to measure 8 of “Blue Trane” in The Real Book. Assuming a tonality of C minor, that pickup riff should be notated G – Bb – Eb – C – Bb. Most importantly, The Real Book completely disregards the “dun — dun” response figure that defines this song, even though rhythmic figures like that are indicated for other songs (cf. Maiden Voyage) and  in some cases the arrangement of a tune is completely written out (cf. Peaches In Regalia.)

The Sixth Edition fixes all of these problems, and dozens more, so in addition to being legal it’s a much, much better reference than the bootleg Real Books. But by fixing the biggest problems in the book, they made certain tunes (like Blue Train) incompatible with the earlier edition, so you can’t just bring your new book to an old book party. And even though it was thoroughly edited, the Sixth Edition doesn’t fix all the problems that were present in the original books; there are still a few head-scratchers and face-palmers in there. For an example, let’s consider the chart for Orbits, a Wayne Shorter tune written for the Miles Davis Quintet. Here is the original recording of the tune on the album Miles Smiles:

Orbits is sort of a free tune; in this recording the harmony is implied by the relationship of the melody and the bass, and the melody itself is sort of a freeform thing. There’s no definable harmonic progression, and on the original recording, Herbie Hancock doesn’t play a single chord. Wayne Shorter has recorded Orbits a few times since this original recording, and every recording is extremely different from the others. I have never spoken to Wayne Shorter about this tune, but I would bet anything I own that this is not what he wrote:


I have to say that whoever transcribed this chart for Orbits tried hard to make it fit into bar lines and chord notations. That half-note triplet? That quarter-note quintuplet? Those Dmaj7(#5)s near the end? Commendable! But there aren’t any chords being played during the melody on the recording, so where did The Real Book’s chords come from? Did the guy transcribing just make them up? On Shorter’s most recent recording of the tune (Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without a Net,) Danilo Perez plays the second half of the head alone on piano, with chords underneath, and it seems to be mostly quartal harmony. It’s hard to tell exactly what keys he’s pressing because of all the overtones on the grand piano he’s playing, but here is a transcription of what I hear for the phrase correlating to measures 24 – 28 in The Real Book:


Notice that the chords from this transcription do not correlate to the ones in the Real Book. The biggest difference is with that second measure, notated in The Real Book as F-7. The chord played on the recording – A white-key quartal harmony with an A natural in the bass voice – is pretty much the opposite of F minor 7. The other chords don’t match The Real Book’s changes, either, but it’s possible to argue that they’re just hyper-sophisticated root-less inversions. But I would think that since this is is transcribed from a Wayne Shorter Quartet recording, the truth is probably that either the quartal chords played by Danilo Perez are the ones intended by the composer, or that the harmony is intended to be interpreted freely. Chances are it’s the latter. Either way, this Sixth Edition Real Book chart is not a good reference or lead sheet for Orbits.

You might say I am being too harsh with my criticism of The Real Book, and you might want to remind me that most of the tunes in it are mostly accurate, and that it was much better than what else was out there when it was first compiled in the 1970s. The Real Book does get a lot of common tunes mostly right, like Cherokee and Footprints. And it sure beats a lot of other fake books from the era it came from, such as The Jazz Fakebook, which includes this practically unrecognizable transcription of Airegin:

But I don’t think I’m being too harsh. The Real Book is the single most common gig book for jazz musicians, yet way too many tunes in The Real Book are inaccurate or unnecessarily complicated. This is not to knock on the kids who put The Real Book together and the folks who continued to edit it through the years. It’s very impressive when you think about what they had to work with. It’s also the book I was given when I started my jazz trombone studies, so I’ve definitely spent a good amount of time with it. But it’s 2014, and The Real Book is not good enough anymore.

You’re probably thinking: Okay, Mr. Smartso. You want me to ditch my Real Book? What do you recommend I replace it with? Well, like most things in life, it comes down to your individual needs. If you’re just looking for lead sheets, and don’t care about the legality of what you’re doing, there’s a nice collection of lead sheets at, many of which are mostly accurate. They don’t all have lyrics, but most of the common tunes are there, and for some tunes there are lead sheets from multiple sources. If your main use for The Real Book is to learn tunes, I you can visit and explore their resources. If you’re looking for a straight-out replacement for The Real Book for gigs, etc., I highly recommend getting a copy of The New Real Book, which has been around for a long while now. It’s widely available, is easy to use, contains lyrics, has tunes in their most common keys with common and alternate changes, and is well edited and annotated. And if all you want is a quick chord chart to practice with or to read on a gig, there’s an app for that.