Apr 28, 2011

Review: "The Story of Fake Books" and the "6th Edition Real Book"

I just finished reading The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians, by Barry Kernfeld. For anyone who has wondered about the history of these essential but often-illegal publications, this book will be a fun read. In this post I’ll do a short review of this book, combined with a review of the Hal Leonard Sixth Edition Real Book, which is probably the fake book currently most-used by jazz students. 
Kernfeld’s book traces the production of fake books beginning with the “Tune-Dex” cards that were produced from 1942 until 1963. Tune-Dex was a service that would provide subscribers with 100 tunes per month, printed on 3” x 5” index cards, with a lead sheet (melody and chord symbols) on one side, copyright info on the other side. Interestingly, this service was legal, approved by the original publishers. Within a few years, bootleg collections of Tune-Dex cards were being marketed "under the table," three Tune-Dex charts printed on each page. Kernfeld describes the appearance of these and subsequent fake books, including the original bootleg "Real Book," up through the legal versions currently available.
“The Story of Fake Books” includes chapters on Tune-Dex, bootlegs created from Tune-Dex, the invention of chord symbols, FBI cases against fake book sellers (some good stories here, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act), legit fake books, and the making of the Real Book by Berklee students in 1975. The book is well-written, and entertaining.
Kernfeld takes music publishers to task for misreading the direction of the print music industry for about 40 years - a huge business miscalculation. I have to agree with him. 
I’m old enough to remember the crummy illegal fake books that we had when I was beginning to study jazz. Those books, plus recordings by jazz artists, were just about all we had to work with. We were thrilled when the original bootleg "Real Book" came out. Great calligraphy, well-chosen tunes, comparatively correct changes - it became the standard reference work for a generation or two of jazz players. We were also thrilled when Sher Music, an “indie” publisher, came out with the legal New Real Book in 1985. It didn’t replace the old RB, but augmented it. Chuck Sher’s products are well-researched and well-produced (there are now “New Real Books” volumes one, two, and three; a “Latin RB”;  a "Standards RB” and more).
The market for well-conceived fake books was obviously quite large, but the major publishers just did not pick up on it. Hal Leonard did produce some fairly useful collections (e.g., “The Ultimate Fake Book”). Unfortunately, these fell short in readability, selection, and accuracy, and did not supplant the original RB.
The Hal Leonard “Real Book: Sixth Edition” (2004) was the first effort by a major publisher that came close to filling musicians’ needs. Ironically, it was given the “look and feel” of the original bootleg RB: a nearly identical tune selection, a music font that mimics the old RB calligraphy, the same logo on the home-made-looking cover, a typewriter print font for the table of contents, and the same plastic comb binding that opens nicely on a music stand. It’s a tribute to the vision of the original bootleg authors that HL felt it needed to follow the old RB format so closely. 

Here’s what is right with the Hal Leonard "Sixth Edition Real Book" : (1.) Many tunes are presented in improved versions, notably tunes by Monk, Mingus, Shorter; (2.) The lead sheets are as readable as those in the old RB; (3.) The book is legal, with royalties paid to the copyright holders (personally, I really do believe in the principle of copyright).
Here’s what is wrong with it: (1.) A number of important tunes from the old RB were omitted; (2.) There are a number of errors and typos - questionable chords, wrong notes. It seems to me that the world’s biggest print music publisher should have tried just a little harder, given that they were recreating an important reference work. And HLRB 1 does seem to have become a new standard reference, due to Hal Leonard’s wide distribution and a price point lower than the bootleg.
Many musicians were disappointed by the omission of some tunes that are basic to the jazz repertoire (e.g., “Alone Together,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Just Friends,” “Night and Day,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “What is This Thing Called Love”). I emailed a source at Hal Leonard, who explained in his reply why those songs were left out: “Sometimes the owner couldn't be located, or just never responded.  In one case, the writer felt that the Real Book would compete with his own publications of his work.  In some, the publisher didn't feel the small amount of money involved was worth it.  The rate wasn't an issue, since print royalty rates are fairly standard among the major print publishers.”
Around 100 tunes were omitted from this edition, and somewhat fewer than that were added. Altogether, there are about 20 tunes that I think absolutely should have been included; the others, I don’t miss. Of the additions, only 10 or so seem at all useful to me.

The old bootleg RBs eventually included a “Volume 2” and “Volume 3,” produced by other unknown pirates. Hal Leonard has redone these also.

In December 2010, Hal Leonard released a Real Book Volume 4 (see this post for a review). Unlike the first 3 volumes, Volume 4 is not a replication of a bootleg book. It includes some of the important tunes that were missing from HLRB 1 (“Days of Wine and Roses,” “Just Friends,” “Night and Day,” “On Green Dolphin Street”), as well as some other welcome additions (like a good chart for “Summertime”). 
Nevertheless, I am hoping for a new “7th Edition,” of HLRB 1, and updates also for Volumes 2 and 3. I’d hope for some really meticulous proofreading, and reconsideration of some chords. 
Digital (.pdf) copies of both legal and illegal fake books have been circulating since around 2004. There’s one DVD being passed around that has something like 30 books on it. Obviously, this presents a threat to music publishers. Here in Silicon Valley (and I’m sure elsewhere), iPads are showing up on music stands at gigs. After all, why carry a stack of fake books around with you? The imperative of basic utility is precisely why illegal fake books were produced and widely used, in the first place.
When everyone is playing from an iPad, with 40 legal and illegal collections on their device, the missing tunes in HLRB 1 won’t matter anymore. Mistakes in melody and chords will still be an issue, though.
Hal Leonard has released Kindle versions of their RBs; a free app from Amazon makes them usable on iPads. I haven’t seen legal digital versions of the Sher books yet, but that company really needs to release them - soon.
I’m holding off on an iPad until it comes with a bigger display, so that you can see two pages at a time. In the meantime I’ll try to memorize some more tunes. Call me old fashioned.
Incidentally, it seems that HLRB 1 is not actually a “6th Edition.” One of the authors of the old RB says that they produced only three versions. I suspect that somewhere along the line, a subsequent bootlegger put “Fifth Edition” on his batch, just because it looked good.


  1. Dear Peter: I'm enjoying your blog. I have heard from a decent source that the reason Autumn Leaves was written in Em in the original Real Book was because it was a mistake intended for the Eb Real Book. I'm enjoying all of your information. Thank-you.

  2. Thanks, Bill. I did a quick check of Google images for the original sheet music, but this song has been around so long that there are versions in many keys. Wikipedia says it was originally in Em. The fact that Em is the Eb transposition for Gm is probably a coincidence - the Eb Real Book was put together many years after the original RB, almost certainly by different people.

    My impression has always been that Em was the original key, but Gm was the more horn-friendly key, chosen for the Cannonball/Miles recording for just that reason.

  3. Here's a great reference about this song: http://www.crj-online.org/v4/CRJ-AutumnLeaves.php

    Still, I'm thinking that perhaps the *American* sheet music orig. key was Em.