I saw my first copy of The Real Book when I was 15. The coolest, hippest, jazziest trumpet player I knew (he was 17 and knew who Miles Davis was) had a copy of this spiral-bound badge of savvy: a clear mark of being "in the know" and "on the scene".

I joined the ranks of the wannabe cool when I bought my first copy of The Real Book out of the back of a van. (Okay, actually, off a table at the back of a gym at the back of campus. But I'm pretty sure the table, the books, and the seller were all together in a van at some point.)

After years of (ab)use, well after it had fallen apart, I replaced it first with The New Real Book and later, when I realized The New Real Book wasn't actually the new The Real Book, with the new, legal The Real Book.

But where did it all begin? Who can reveal the mysteries, uncover the secrets, of this much beloved, much reviled tome?

(And why does it have so many Steve Swallow and Paul Bley tunes?)

  • Interesting question. What about the Fake Book?
    – Tim
    Oct 30, 2020 at 8:53
  • @Tim: What is a Fake Book? (added link to answer).
    – Aaron
    Oct 30, 2020 at 10:58

2 Answers 2


The Real Book is a well-known example of a "fake book". For the history of fake books, see What is a Fake Book?.

Secret origin of The Real Book

Two (anonymous) Berklee students compiled The Real Book sometime between 1971 and 1975. It quickly became very popular, but, since no copyrights had been secured or royalties paid, also very illegal. For the next 34 years it would be sold under the table in music stores, bought by friends who knew someone who knew someone, brought in unmarked vans to dark corners of music schools, photocopied, passed around, and otherwise distributed to, basically, everyone.

The adventure continues...

The New Real Book was published in 1988 by Sher Music Co. but, while inspired by The Real Book, was an entirely separate endeavor.

In 2004, Hal Leonard Corporation undertook re-creating the original Real Book, with copyrights secured and royalties paid. It has since grown into a large line of Real Book titles.

It's a bird ... It's a plane ... It's more information about The Real Book

For a more detailed account, the "official" history of The Real Book can be found on the Hal Leonard website.

Wikipedia adds additional information, including:

Pat Metheny claims that while teaching at Berklee College of Music from 1973 to 1974, one of his guitar students and one of Gary Burton's vibraphone students (both of whom wish to remain anonymous) invented the idea of assembling the anthology that would form The Real Book.

Also this tidbit:

When [Steve] Swallow was asked about the origin in February 2018, he said the book was written by students at Berklee who wanted to make money. They asked permission to use some of his songs, and he agreed. Swallow asked [Paul] Bley and Steve Kuhn if they wanted some of their songs included, and they did; so they all contributed lead sheets. Swallow helped briefly with editing.


The first edition of The Real Book dropped in the summer of 1975. It was transcribed and compiled by two Berklee students, with proofreading and guidance from faculty members Steve Swallow, Pat Metheny, Herb Pomeroy and others. The primary objective was not financial but rather to make available a first rate collection of jazz standards and contemporary pieces clearly and accurately written for practical use by musicians. In short, a book light years beyond anything available at the time. As it turned out, it met a profound need, quickly becoming ubiquitous among students and musicians worldwide. In very general terms, IMO it helped codify the way in which jazz lead sheets were written, as taught at Berklee and as heard on the early Be Bop recordings of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie, on to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans, and including contemporary artists of the day such as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny. The 2nd and 3rd editions followed with corrections and improvements. The 4th and 5th editions were produced and sold by bootleggers of which there were numerous from the outset. A legal 6th edition was published by the Hal Leonard Corp. in 2004.

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