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


Some exposition, briefly: The Real Book is a fake book that was most likely compiled by anonymous Berklee students in the 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. 

Some people are against using fake books like The Real Book because people think they are a crutch, or a 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. But lead sheets are good for a number of reasons and I appreciate having them around. 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 the Sixth Edition 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 bit. But first we need to address those bootleg editions. They are still everywhere, and we need to be done with them. The closest nonmusical analogy I can think of is if a poorly transcribed collection of poems became the standard versions of those poems in English, even though the original poems were also in English. Why would anyone want to use that book? And it’s not that The Real Book wanted to simplify songs for people to learn, like a Cliff’s Notes thing for musicians; in fact, the original Real Book’s charts were typically more complicated than the original tunes, sometimes in ways that were 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 chord changes that Jimmy Van Heusen wrote. John Coltrane, I assume, created these alternate chord changes, which means this isn’t a very good reference for someone who wants to learn the song. Assuming the key of Eb major, measure six should be Bb7 followed by Bb+7, and measure 7 should be some form of Eb major. Those are the original chords of the song, and they are the chords that are most commonly played on recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. This is not to say that the altered chords are “wrong.” This is also not to say that people shouldn’t play alternate changes. But if a book is going to be the main book that people use, the original chords for a tune should be at the very least included, and any alternate chord changes should be indicated as such.

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

This is a mess. I think someone playing this chart note-for-note could sound pretty swinging, but this is 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. As a reference it is pretty much useless: the rhythm doesn’t match the unprinted lyrics at all (e.g. the 4th measure of B) and there’s no indication that the A section is a call and response. For this chart to work, everyone on stage would have to already know the song. And if everyone already knows the song, they probably don’t need a chart. 

Not every older tune was embellished like this; a lot of standards and showtunes were transcribed in those bootleg Real Books with only minor deviations from their original melodies and original chord progressions. This doesn’t mean the charts are useful. 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 the song I Could Write A Book was written as a medium-tempo bounce, and it’s 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: the 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 standards” 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 the title track of one of the most enduring LPs of its era. Here is its page from the bootleg 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 of those invented harmonies in the Real Book’s “Blue Trane” that have no correlation to chords played on the original Blue Train recording, like the phantom F-7 Bb7 notated under the pickup measure and the arbitrary A-7 D7 in measure 8. Where did they come from? 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 (e.g. Maiden Voyage) and  in some cases the arrangement of a tune is completely written out (e.g. Peaches In Regalia.)

The Sixth Edition fixes all of these problems, and dozens more, so in addition to being legal it’s a much better reference than those 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 original recording, any harmony is implied by the relationship of the melody and the bass. The melody itself is sort of a freeform thing, and the band doesn’t seem to lock into time until several phrases into the song. There’s no set harmonic progression, and on this original recording, Herbie Hancock doesn’t play a single chord. Wayne Shorter has recorded Orbits two other times since this original recording, and each one is very 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. That half-note triplet? That quarter-note quintuplet? Wow! 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 person transcribing just make them up? I think they did, and that should not be acceptable.

For example: In the recording, the bass plays C, A, Ab and G in the first phrase. So what’s with that Eb-7 in measure 2? There is a G in the bass at the same point as the Bb in the melody, so if that chord is Eb anything it’s Eb major. And the bass plays the exact same figure twice, so why are the chord changes different between measures 1-3 and 4-6? This is a mess.

Edit, September 2017: Since this was written, the session reel from this recording session has been released by Columbia Records as part of Miles Davis: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5. The lead sheet is indeed very wrong; Miles practices the melody slowly at one point which clarifies the melody of the first phrase; at another point there is discussion of a 6/4 bar and a 5/4 bar; and Herbie Hancock plays actual chords at one point after Miles tells him to “just play the chords, man.” There are enough consistencies between takes that it’s probably possible to create a usable lead sheet for this song. Hal Leonard, give me a call pls! Or you could just ask Wayne Shorter. 

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, but here is a general transcription of what I hear for the phrase correlating to measures 24 – 28 in The Real Book:


The chords from this transcription do not correlate to the ones in the Real Book at all. in that second measure, notated in The Real Book as F-7, the chord played on the recording is a white-key quartal harmony with an A natural in the bass voice. Whichever way you want to interpret this harmony, any chord built on an A natural is pretty much the opposite of F-7, which is what is written in the Real Book. The other chords don’t match The Real Book’s changes, either, unless you want to argue that they may be correct and Perez was playing some sophisticated rootless voicings. 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 were intended by the composer, or that the harmony is intended to be interpreted freely and those voicings were choices made by Mr. Perez. Chances are it’s the latter. Either way, this Sixth Edition Real Book chart is not a good reference or lead sheet for Orbits.

The sixth edition also does not solve the problem of including alternate chord changes without the original chord changes indicated. Here is the last section of All The Things You Are as it appears in the legal Sixth Edition Real Book:

Jerome Kern’s original chord changes are mostly intact with one glaring exception: the Gb7(13) chord. The original chord was Bbø; this is the chord in the original sheet music and also on the earliest recordings of the song. The Eb in Kern’s melody is not an added 13; it is actually a glorious, tense appoggiatura. This Gb7(13) chord in The Real Book transforms the entire nature of the passage, and is even more incompatible with the correct harmony than Db-7, the other wrong chord that people learn for that measure. 

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 charts in The Real Book are inaccurately transcribed 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? For now, like most things in life, it comes down to your individual needs. If you’re looking for a straight-out replacement for The Real Book, I highly recommend getting a copy of The New Real Book, which has been around for a while now and has several volumes. 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. It’s not 100% accurate if you’re into the original chord changes like I am, but it’s a book you can bring to a gig and trust. If your main use for The Real Book is to learn tunes and you don’t necessarily want to buy another book, you can visit and explore their resources. 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. The iReal app has a strong community and you can get pretty much everything you need on it, aside from melodies.

Updated September 2017: I’ve added an extra paragraph about All The Things You Are, and revisited the section about Orbits. In fact, a lot has changed since I wrote this. A new article is coming soon. Get in touch with me (dan at danreitz dot com) if you’re interested in learning more. 

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