The Real Book

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Since the mid-1970s, almost every jazz musician has owned a copy of the same book. It has a peach-colored cover, a chunky 70’s style logo and black plastic binding. It is delightfully homemade-looking like it was printed by a bunch of teenagers at Kinko’s, and inside is the sheet music for hundreds of common jazz tunes, also known as jazz standards, all meticulously notated by hand. It’s called the Real Book.

Mikel McCavana:
When I started playing jazz, I remember the first thing my guitar teacher said was, “Well, you’ve got to buy a Real Book.”

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Mikel McCavana.

Mikel McCavana:
Everybody had one. It just felt like something you were expected to own if you were a serious musician. My high school jazz teacher, Mr. Leonard had stacks of Real Books on his desk. And he told me that he actually got his first Real Book at the place where they were originally published, Berklee College of Music in Boston. He had just arrived for his freshman year.

Jeff Leonard:
I heard people talking about the Real Book, the Real Book. It was just all around Berklee. They were everywhere, everywhere. You were told, when you had an ensemble, “Bring a Real Book. We’re going to do some tunes out of that.”

Mikel McCavana:
But pretty quickly, Mr. Leonard discovered that the Real Book wasn’t like the other books he needed to get for his classes. You couldn’t just buy a copy in the campus bookstore.

Jeff Leonard:
There was a guy who used to stand on the corner of Mass Ave near Boylston Street. And he had a box and he would sit there and he’d just, “Hey, you want to buy a Real Book? You want to buy a Real Book,” that kind of thing.

Mikel McCavana:
From Mr. Leonard’s description, this guy basically sounded like he wandered out of a ZZ Top concert.

Jeff Leonard:
You know, jeans, really, really long, mid-back level hair, a big beard. And as I understood it, he used to get arrested about once every two weeks.

Roman Mars:
He would get arrested because the Real Book was illegal.

Mikel McCavana:
The world’s most popular collection of jazz music was a totally unlicensed publication, a janky self-published book created without permission from music publishers or songwriters. It was duplicated at photocopy shops and sold on street corners, out of the trunks of cars and under the table at music stores where people used secret code words to make the exchange.

Roman Mars:
The full story of how the Real Book came to be this bootleg Bible of jazz is a complicated one. It’s a story about what happens when an insurgent improvisational art form like jazz gets codified and becomes something you can learn from a book.

Mikel McCavana:
Barry Kernfeld is a musicologist, who’s written a lot about the history of jazz and music piracy. He’s also a saxophonist. And at a coffee shop gig in the 1990s, he was opening his Real Book…

Barry Kernfeld:
And I started wondering, “Well, we’re reading all these tunes and learning to play and where did the book come from?”

Mikel McCavana:
Kernfeld says, that long before the Real Book ever came out, jazz musicians were relying on collections of music they called fake books.

Roman Mars:
And the story of the first fake book begins in the 1940s.

Barry Kernfeld:
A man named George Goodwin in New York City involved heavily in radio in the early 1940s was getting a little frustrated with all the intricacies of tracking licensing. And so he invented this thing that he called the Tune-Dex.

Roman Mars:
The Tune-Dex was an index card catalog designed for radio station employees to keep track of the songs they were playing on air. On one side, the cards had information about a particular song.

Barry Kernfeld:
The composer, the publisher, the things you would need to know for paying rights.

Mikel McCavana:
And on the other side, they had a few lines of bite-sized sheet music, just the song’s melody, lyrics, and chords, so that radio station employees could glance at it and quickly recall the song.

Roman Mars:
But this abbreviated musical notation also made the cards useful to another group of people — working jazz musicians.

Mikel McCavana:
As a Black art form, jazz had developed out of a mix of other Black music traditions, including spirituals and the blues. By the forties, a lot of jazz was popular dance music, and many jazz musicians were making their money playing live gigs in small clubs and bars. The standard jazz repertoire was mostly well-known songs from Broadway or New York songwriting factory Tin Pan Alley, like the song “Night and Day” by Tin Pan Alley legend, Cole Porter.

Mikel McCavana:
Jazz musicians would riff and freestyle over these songs. That’s always been a key part of jazz — the art of improvisation. But what made the average gigging trumpeter or sax player truly valuable was their ability to play any one of hundreds of songs right there on the spot.

Barry Kernfeld:
In the 1940s, people are working steadily as musicians, playing piano in nightclubs or playing in a small group in nightclubs, fulfilling requests, the cliche of the drunken guy… “Hey, can you play ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’?” (imitates drunk voice)

Mikel McCavana:
To be prepared for any drunken request, musicians would bring stacks and stacks of sheet music to every gig. But lugging around a giant pile of paper was really cumbersome, and that’s where the Tune-Dex came in.

Roman Mars:
And someone figured out that you could gather a bunch of Tune-Dex cards, print copies of them on sheets of paper, add a table of contents and a simple binding, and then sell the finished product directly to musicians in the form of a book.

Mikel McCavana:
They called them ‘fake books’ because they helped musicians fake their way through unfamiliar songs. These first fake books were cheaper than regular sheet music and a lot more organized. And they became an essential tool for this entire class of working musicians.

Barry Kernfeld:
And then they could bring that to gigs. Instead of having to trawl through piles of sheet music and try to keep each individual sheet in alphabetical order – what a nightmare – you have your bound little book of 300 tunes, or 500 tunes, or 1,000 tunes. And that became the first popular music fake book.

Roman Mars:
Musicians loved these new fake books, but the music publishers, not so much. They wanted musicians to buy their sheet music. And so the publishing companies started cracking down on fake book bootleggers.

Barry Kernfeld:
The music publishers did everything they could – FBI investigations and federal trials – in order to suppress this new way of distributing music.

Mikel McCavana:
But that didn’t stop the bootleggers. And by the 1950s, there were countless illegal fake books in existence, which were being used in nightclubs all across the country.

Roman Mars:
But as helpful as fake books were, they had a lot of problems. They were notoriously illegible and confusingly laid out.

Steve Swallow:
It can’t be stressed enough how deficient the old fake books were in this regard, how impossible to read and how stupidly misrepresented they were on the page.

Mikel McCavana:
Steve Swallow is a jazz musician and an all-around good guy.

Steve Swallow:
A swell guy. I always liked to be known and thought of as a swell guy. I’m a bass player, and I write tunes. That’s the salient fact of my life.

Mikel McCavana:
Starting off as a young jazz musician in the 1950s, Swallow played at clubs and at dances and weddings and bar mitzvahs. And for a lot of these gigs, he relied on these poorly designed fake books.

Steve Swallow:
Working on jazz music seriously, one of the first things I did was to buy a fake book. And they were just vexing and badly, badly written.

Roman Mars:
The other big problem with these fake books, at this point, was that the music inside felt really out of date.

Mikel McCavana:
The fake books hadn’t changed since the mid-40s, but jazz had. Disillusioned by commercial jazz that appealed to mainstream white audiences, a new generation of Black musicians took jazz improvisation to a new level, experimenting with more angular harmonies, technically demanding melodies and blindingly fast tempos. Their new style was called bebop.

[BEHOP TUNE PLAYS]

Mikel McCavana:
That was bebop legend Charlie Parker. And bebop was just the beginning. Then came hard bop and modal jazz spearheaded by Miles Davis. Then you had the wild dissonant free jazz of people like Ornette Coleman and the electrified jazz fusion of Herbie Hancock.

Mikel McCavana:
By the 1970s, jazz had exploded into this constellation of different styles. Meanwhile, the economics of jazz had shifted too. There were fewer clubs and smaller paychecks.

Roman Mars:
University jazz programs also started popping up around this time, providing steady teaching gigs to establish musicians. And increasingly, the ivory tower became a place for young musicians to learn.

Mikel McCavana:
And if you’re going to jazz school, you need jazz books.

Roman Mars:
But the fake books at the time hadn’t kept up with the music. They still contained the same old-fashioned collection of standards with the same old-fashioned collection of chord changes.

Mikel McCavana:
So if a young jazz musician wanted to try and play like Charles Mingus or Sonny Rollin, they weren’t going to learn from a book, that is, until two college kids invented the Real Book.

Steve Swallow:
I don’t want to overemphasize my role in it, which was minor, but I knew the guys.

Mikel McCavana:
In the mid-’70s, Steve Swallow began teaching at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, an elite private music school that boasted one of the first jazz performance programs in the country. Swallow had only been teaching at Berklee for a few months when two students approached him about a secret project.

Steve Swallow:
I keep referring to them as ‘the two guys who wrote the book’ because way back when, they swore me to secrecy. They made me agree that I would not divulge their names.

Roman Mars:
The two guys wanted to make a new fake book, one that actually catered to the needs of contemporary jazz musicians and reflected the current state of jazz. And they needed Steve’s help.

Steve Swallow:
That’s how they pitched it. They pitched it that they wanted to write a fake book that would actually be useful to an 18-year-old person who wanted to become a jazz musician.

Mikel McCavana:
As a longtime user of some pretty horrible fake books, Steve was excited. He thought that a modern, well-made jazz fake book would be an essential improvement for his students.

Steve Swallow:
And indeed, that was part of my initial response to their pitch. I thought, “Jesus, why didn’t I think of this?”

Mikel McCavana:
But he was also torn. He knew the students couldn’t possibly pay licensing fees for all the songs they wanted to include. So he had to decide whether helping them was the right thing to do.

Steve Swallow:
Because clearly, their intention was to break the law.

Mikel McCavana:
They would also be selling a book filled with other people’s music. But in the end, Swallow decided that the need for a good jazz fake book was so great that it was worth it, and he agreed to help.

Roman Mars:
Swallow and the students were going to make a fake book that would actually be useful to a young person trying to play jazz, a real fake book, a Real Book.

Mikel McCavana:
From the very beginning, the students envisioned the Real Book as a cooler and more contemporary fake book than the stodgy outdated ones they’d grown up with. They wanted it to include new songs from modern jazz musicians who were pushing the boundaries of the genre.

Roman Mars:
They also wanted to include the old jazz standards from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. But they wanted to update those classics with alternate chord changes that reflected the way that modern musicians like Miles Davis were actually playing them.

Steve Swallow:
Miles Davis was a central figure in all of this and as he kind of exhumed dozens, I would say, of Tin Pan Alley tunes. And he and his sidemen, notably his pianist, had smoothed the harmonies in a way that became definitive.

Mikel McCavana:
One of those standard tunes is “Someday My Prince Will Come”, a song from the 1937 Disney movie musical Snow White. Here is the original.

[CLIP OF THE ORIGINAL ‘SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME’]

Mikel McCavana:
And here is the Miles Davis version from 1961, the version that the students decided to put in the Real Book. It’s the same song, but listen to how different, how complex the chord sound when played by pianist Wynton Kelly.

[CLIP OF MILES DAVIS’ VERSION OF ‘SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME’]

Mikel McCavana:
Modern jazz musicians had altered a lot of classic standards in this way over the years. And to capture these sophisticated alternate chord changes, the two students spent hours listening to recordings and transcribing what they heard as best they could. It was a huge undertaking because most of these chord changes had never actually been written down. They weren’t necessarily thinking about it like this at the time, but the students were effectively establishing a new set of standardized harmonies for a handful of classic songs.

Roman Mars:
But the music wasn’t the only part of their new fake book that the two students wanted to improve. They also wanted to fix the aesthetic problems with the old fake books and make something that was nice to look at and easy to read.

Steve Swallow:
One of the two guys had a gorgeous music hand, the way he formed his quarter notes and his eighth notes and all of that. It was lovely. And his role in the book, among other things, he did all the actual penmanship. It’s one guy who wrote the entire book.

Mikel McCavana:
He notated all of the music by hand in this very distinctive and expressive script. He also designed and silk-screened the logo on the front cover, just the words “The Real Book” written in chunky, schoolhouse, rock-style, block letters.

Roman Mars:
And holding everything together was a plastic binding that let the book easily lie flat on a music stand.

Mikel McCavana:
By the summer of 1975, the book was done and the students took it to local photocopying shops where they cranked out hundreds of copies to sell directly to other students and a few local businesses near Berklee.

Steve Swallow:
There was a corner store called the Bentley Smoker, which was not a music shop. It was just, everybody smoked. It was a cigarette store and beneath the counter was a stack of Real Books. And almost overnight, everybody had to have one.

Mikel McCavana:
Including my old jazz teacher, Mr. Leonard. He bought a copy of the Real Book from that guy with the long hair on Mass Ave.

Jeff Leonard:
On Mass Ave, yep. I think it was 20 bucks, which was steep at that point. It was like, “Wow, okay.” But that’s what you needed. It was like buying a school book. In fact, I used it more than some of my textbooks for classrooms.

Mikel McCavana:
Mainly, he used it with other students in late-night jam sessions in the practice rooms.

Jeff Leonard:
Anybody could go in and play and of course, there were a lot of them because it was a big school. And if you walked in with your Real Book, you could participate and be a part of it.

Mikel McCavana:
Mr. Leonard says the Real Book helped everyone get on the same page really quickly. And Steve Swallow noticed this too. Before the Real Book came out, he used to walk by the practice rooms and hear students mangling the chord changes to all of these jazz tunes.

Steve Swallow:
And all of a sudden, the Real Book came along and I was making this same walk and hearing the right changes to “I Love You,” and the right changes to “My Funny Valentine.” I said, “Whoa, this is remarkable.”

Mikel McCavana:
As the Real Book’s notoriety grew, so did the demand. The two students hadn’t printed enough copies to keep up, but it turns out they didn’t need to.

Steve Swallow:
Not long after they published a few hundred photocopied versions of this book, somebody else photocopied the book and started selling it. And then copies of the copies were fanning out to New York City and LA and then beyond to Berlin and Shanghai, and so on.

Roman Mars:
The Real Book had taken on a life of its own. And the students, ironically, found themselves in the same position as the music publishers and songwriters that they had originally cut out of the process as they watched unlicensed copies of their work get duplicated and sold.

Steve Swallow:
And of course, they were in no position to yell. They kind of had to just shake their heads.

Mikel McCavana:
After they released the first edition of the Real Book, the students put out two more editions to correct mistakes. And then their work was done. But the Real Book lived on, copied over and over again by new generations of bootleggers.

Roman Mars:
Steve Swallow doesn’t take the copyright issue lightly, but he thinks the Real Book was a net positive for the composers featured inside. And he would know, since he’s one of them.

Mikel McCavana:
When he agreed to help the students, Swallow actually donated a bunch of his own songs. He figured it would benefit him in the long run. If more young people were exposed to his music, they might even record a cover someday which would bring him royalties. And to be fair, the Real Book is actually how I learned who Steve Swallow was.

Steve Swallow:
I think that, to this day, my songs are played to the extent that they are, chiefly because they were available in the Real Book. It’s been a blessing.

Roman Mars:
And as the number of students in elite conservatory jazz programs continued to swell over the next few decades, the Real Book, with its modern repertoire, re-harmonized standards and beautiful handwriting, became the defacto textbook for this new legion of jazz students, the unofficial official handbook of jazz.

Mikel McCavana:
Just like with old fake books, the success of the Real Book was a major problem for music publishers. Some companies released their own jazz songbooks, but they never managed to compete witht the Real Book.

Jeff Schroedl:
It couldn’t compete with the Real Book because it just didn’t have all the right songs in it.

Mikel McCavana:
This is Jeff Schroedl. He’s an executive at Hal Leonard, a print music publishing company.

Jeff Schroedl:
You know, the Real Book was illegal, so they didn’t care about licensing. And they just put all the best songs in and didn’t pay anyone, which wasn’t the right thing to do. But obviously, from a competitive standpoint, they had the best book out of the gate.

Roman Mars:
And the popularity of the Real Book meant that lots of people weren’t getting paid for their work.

Mikel McCavana:
That is, until Jeff Schroedl decided to make a legal version.

Roman Mars:
The real Real Book.

Jeff Schroedl:
I said, “Hey. We published jazz fake books and jazz lead sheets and jazz publications of all kinds. And, you know, yet the Real Book is still ‘the book.’ And, you know, why don’t we just publish the Real Book legally?”

Mikel McCavana:
In the mid-2000s, Jeff Schroedl and the publisher, Hal Leonard secured the rights to almost every song in the Real Book and published a completely legal version.

Roman Mars:
You don’t need to buy the Real Book out of the back of someone’s car anymore. It’s available at your local music shop.

Mikel McCavana:
And to me, the striking thing about this new version is the way that it looks.

Jeff Schroedl:
We didn’t want to make the Hal Leonard corporate Real Book. We wanted to maintain that sort of homespun, underground look. We wanted the same cardstock. We wanted the same logo. We wanted the same binding.

Mikel McCavana:
And they even wanted the same handwriting. Hal Leonard actually hired a copyist to mimic the old Real Book’s iconic script and turn it into a digital font, which means a digital copy of a physical copy of one anonymous Berklee student’s handwriting from the mid-’70s will continue to live on for as long as new editions of the book are published.

Roman Mars:
When Hal Leonard finally published the legal version of the Real Book in 2004, it was great news if you were a composer with a song in there. You’d finally be getting royalties from the sale of the most popular book of jazz music in the world.

Mikel McCavana:
But that didn’t totally solve the intellectual property problems with the Real Book. And to understand why not, we’re going to take a look at one of the songs inside. It’s called “Sophisticated Lady,” and it’s on page 376 of the Hal Leonard Real Book.

Roman Mars:
“Sophisticated Lady” was first recorded by the legendary pianist Duke Ellington and his band in 1933.

Mikel McCavana:
A trombonist in Ellington’s band whose named Lawrence Brown had this signature riff that he liked to play. And if you listened to the beginning of “Sophisticated Lady,” you’ll hear it. It’s the melody.

[CLIP OF “SOPHISTICATED LADY”]

Mikel McCavana:
Here is Lawrence Brown talking with journalist Patricia Willard.

PATRICIA WILLARD:
[WHO WROTE THE ‘SOPHISTICATED LADY?’]

LAWRENCE BROWN:
[EVERYBODY JUMPS IN AND HELPS OUT. BUT MAINLY, I HAD A THEME THAT I PLAYED ALL THE TIME, WHICH IS THE FIRST EIGHT BARS. THAT WAS THE BASIC TUNE OF ‘SOPHISTICATED LADY.’]

Mikel McCavana:
But according to Brown, Ellington paid him $15 for his contribution to the song.

LAWRENCE BROWN:
[AND I GOT THE TERRIFIC CHECK FOR $15 FOR PLAYING IT, FOR WRITING IT. “SOPHISTICATED LADY.’]

PATRICIA WILLARD:
[NOW, HAVE YOU EVER GOTTEN CO-COMPOSER CREDIT?]

LAWRENCE BROWN:
[NO, NO. THAT CHECK CANCELS YOU OUT.]

Roman Mars:
That means that Brown wasn’t legally entitled to a songwriter credit or royalties, even though he contributed one of the song’s most recognizable elements.

PATRICIA WILLARD:
[THAT WAS QUITE A BARGAIN, WASN’T IT?]

LAWRENCE BROWN:
[YEAH. THAT’S MUSIC.]

Mikel McCavana:
But Brown thought that ‘Sophisticated Lady’ wouldn’t even exist without his signature melody, and that Ellington took credit for writing a song that he merely arranged.

LAWRENCE BROWN:
[I TOLD HIM, ‘I DON’T CONSIDER YOU A COMPOSER. YOU ARE A COMPILER,’ TO WHICH HIS EGO BOILED OVER.]

Roman Mars:
Ironically, one person who did get co-writing credits on Sophisticated Lady was Duke Ellington’s white manager, Irving Mills. What exactly Mills contributed is debated, but it’s clear that he used his power to get his name on many of Ellington songs and reap more royalties for himself.

Mikel McCavana:
To this day, when you open up the Hal Leonard Real Book and turn to ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ you’ll see three listed writers, including Duke Ellington and Irving Mills. But one name you won’t see is Lawrence Brown.

Roman Mars:
And so while the legalization of the Real Book did resolve most of its flagrant copyright violations, it didn’t clear up authorship disputes like these that go back to the early days of jazz. And there are likely many more musicians, just like Brown, whose names will never appear on the songs they helped write, even if those songs appear in the legal Real Book.

Mikel McCavana:
Even if we put intellectual property questions aside for a second, the Real Book still has plenty of critics.

Carolyn Wilkins:
The Real Book, the guys when they did it, they transcribed things and they chose standard chords that some people were using, but not everyone was using those same chords.

Roman Mars:
Carolyn Wilkins teaches ensembles at Berklee College of Music. And she says that the Real Book got so popular over the years that people started to treat the versions of the songs inside as the definitive. But even though jazz has all these standards, Wilkins says, they’re not supposed be played in one standard way.

Carolyn Wilkins:
People, especially back in the day, considered putting their original stamp on something to be far more important than playing it “correctly.” So they might change a chord here. They might change a note. They might decide they liked the key of D flat better than the key of B flat.

Mikel McCavana:
This type of improvisation is much less common in classical music from the last two centuries where authenticity is more about how well you can reproduce what’s on the page as precisely as possible. When people play Mozart’s Piano Sonata Number 16 in C major, they don’t say, “You know what? I’m going to try it in A major this time.”

Roman Mars:
And so when musicians play a version of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” that sounds exactly as it appears in the Real Book, they’re acting more like classical musicians than jazz musicians.

Carolyn Wilkins:
And once things kind of became standardized into the Real Book, then you have this thing of people who just always play the same thing the same way, same key, same set of chord changes.

Mikel McCavana:
Nicholas Payton is a musician and record label owner. And he compares the Real Book to a study guide or a cheat sheet, basically a way to distill this complicated art form into a manageable packet of digestible information.

Nicholas Payton:
But you see, here it becomes a problem when you’re talking about codifying and teaching Black music is you can’t teach free rhythmic thought. You can’t put that in a book and expect students to grasp it.

Mikel McCavana:
To Payton, the music isn’t just information to be learned from a book. It’s a way of thinking and a form of expression. And it’s fundamentally a Black cultural phenomenon that can’t be taken out of its historical context.

Nicholas Payton:
It’s a communal music at its essence. And it’s a living, breathing organism. It can’t be housed or archive in that way.

Mikel McCavana:
Payton says that reading books like the Real Book, even going to music school, can only really get you so far. At some point, you’re going to have to immerse yourself in the culture of the music.” For Payton and many other musicians, learning directly from elders, in person, is a crucial part of what it means to really know the art form.

Nicholas Payton:
I think for many people who perhaps don’t live in a thriving music culture like a Detroit or a New York or a New Orleans or a Chicago, if you live in Des Moines, Iowa, school might be a good resource and tool. But eventually, at some point, if you’re serious about playing this music, you’re going to have to be around people who actually do it.

Roman Mars:
But Carolyn Wilkins says that the Real Book does have its place in jazz education. Over her years at Berklee, she’s seen how it can be a useful starting place, a tool to bring young jazz musicians together.

Carolyn Wilkins:
A traditional Real Book gives you at least some sense of, this is the repertoire. These are the tunes. If you want to walk into a jam session anywhere in the world and unpack your instrument and say, “Can I sit in?” These are the tunes that you’re going to need. And if you say, “All right, we’re going to play ‘Beautiful Love.'” Boom. Now everyone has a Real Book. Ta-da. There is Beautiful Love D minor. Done. We’re ready.

Mikel McCavana:
But she also says, if you only play songs as they’re notated in the Real Book, and that’s as far as you take it, you’re not really playing the music the way it’s supposed to be played. To do that, you have to go further.

Carolyn Wilkins:
Then you go out and listen to 20 different people play it and find different ways. And then ultimately, you must find your own way.

Roman Mars:
After the break, Mikel and I talk about the central mystery of the Real Book. Who were the two Berklee students who compiled the first version and sold it around Boston? We go down that rabbit hole after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Okay. So we’re back with Mikel McCavana who reported that story. And Mikel, as I understand it, there is a central mystery at the heart of this story and that’s who wrote the Real Book, the first Real Book. The identities of the authors have remained anonymous after all these years, but you were determined to try to figure this out. So why did you want to know the identity of the authors?

Mikel McCavana:
So the Real Book was just this kind of omnipresent thing when I was learning jazz in high school, and it didn’t even really seem like it had authors to begin with. It just felt like this book that everybody had and, you know, just popped out of thin air. And so when I learned that there was this backstory and there were these people, kind of mysterious figures behind the Real Book, I was just like, I have to know. Part of it too, for me was really just, the Real Book had a big impact on my approach to learning jazz in high school and the guys who put it together, the choices that they made, kind of directed what I was doing, kind of like this invisible hand guiding my musical development and so to kind of try and reach out and find those guys felt weirdly meaningful to me in a way.

Roman Mars:
That makes sense to me. So, okay. So where did you start?

Mikel McCavana:
So I started by talking to my high school jazz teacher, Mr. Leonard, who was a student at Berklee in the late ’70s, a couple of years after the Real Book came out. But he told me that when he was a student there, no one was really interested in the story behind the Real Book or where it came from.

Jeff Leonard:
No, at that point we were just concerned with trying not to get busted buying it from the guy in the corner. I don’t even remember it being much of a topic of discussion.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So Mr. Leonard is a bust. So where did you turn to next?

Mikel McCavana:
So next I talked to Steve Swallow. And Steve Swallow was pretty intimately involved in the creation of the book. And obviously he knew who these guys were, but he wasn’t about to tell me because they had sworn him to an oath of secrecy after they finished and put it out. But still I asked him, do you have their contact information? Would you be able to reach out on my behalf if you do? And he said, “Yeah, I think I was in touch with one of them via email, maybe like 10 years ago.”

Steve Swallow:
We’ve had email contact maybe… Jesus… maybe 10 years ago, but I would try. I would send an email to that address. And if it still works, see what he says. Sure.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Here we go. All right.

Mikel McCavana:
And so he did, and it came back return to sender, just bounced back immediately. So that was also a dead end.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Okay.

Mikel McCavana:
Yeah. At this point, I’m feeling a little bit frustrated, a little bit stuck, not really sure what to do next. And then, I just start reading everything I can online that anyone has written about the Real Book. And one day I’m on this random blog post, somewhere on the internet. And I scroll down to the comment section and one of the first comments is from a guy who’s claiming to be one of the original authors. He’s saying, “I was one of the authors of the Real Book,” And he only goes by one letter. So no real name. He leaves just a letter to sign off on this comment. And the letter is B.

Roman Mars:
So, mysterious.

Mikel McCavana:
Very mysterious. This B guy, he also says he was in touch with Barry Kernfeld, who is a musicologist who I had actually already interviewed for this piece.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Okay. So how do you know that the person who wrote this comment was the person who actually wrote the Real Book and not just somebody claiming to be. Because I could go on a message board and say, I wrote the Real Book too.

Mikel McCavana:
Yeah, totally. So I actually reached out to Barry Kernfeld again, after I’d interviewed him and I asked, is this legit? Did you get an email from this guy? Were you in contact with him? This guy who said he was in contact with you who claims to have written the Real Book? And Barry said, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay.

Mikel McCavana:
He said actually about 10 years ago, he got an email from this guy and you know that they were in contact and he said he actually still had that email. And so I had to ask him, obviously, can you get back in touch? Can you email this guy again? And he said, “Sure, I’ll try. It’s been a long time, but I’ll give it a shot.” So Barry reached out to this guy. A couple of days later, he tells me to reach out directly.

Roman Mars:
Okay, here we go.

Mikel McCavana:
I reach out. And then a couple days later I hear back and it’s a message from a ultra-encrypted email server based somewhere outside of the United States. And it’s someone using an obviously fake name, but it is definitely this guy. It is B.

Roman Mars:
So this is the guy.

Mikel McCavana:
This is the guy.

Roman Mars:
I mean, when you’re going through this, is this level of subterfuge, does it feel necessary or theatrical or how is this striking you at this point?

Mikel McCavana:
It feels a little bit over the top. I do feel like I’m corresponding with like a double-agent deep in the cold war somewhere, but it’s also a little bit exciting kind of. It’s not a huge mystery, but it isn’t mysterious. Definitely.

Roman Mars:
So what did this email say?

Mikel McCavana:
So I asked him if he would want to do an audio interview and predictably, he said no. Then I asked him do you want to answer a couple of questions over email? And he said, sure. And so I sent him an email with a list of questions and waited a couple of days, heard nothing back, sent a follow up email, waited a couple more days, heard nothing back, sent another follow-up email. And then this continued four or five times. And at this point I just kind of resigned myself to the fact that I was not going to hear back from him.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, yeah, that’s too bad.

Mikel McCavana:
And I just started pursuing different avenues to try and find this guy or one of the guys. I asked my high school, jazz teacher again, do you know people from Berklee? Do you know some names? Can you put me in touch with them? And he got in touch with a teacher of his who passed on some names to me. And I started emailing people, not getting any more responses. I felt like I was kind of circling the drain at this point.

Roman Mars:
And were you pretty resolved at this point that you were never going to hear from this person or find them before we put the story out?

Mikel McCavana:
Yeah, I was like, we’re never going to hear back. I was so close and we lost the thread. It’s not coming back.

Roman Mars:
So where are we now?

Mikel McCavana:
Well, four days before this episode was set to air, I opened my email. It’s about 10:00 PM. I’m ready to go to sleep. And it’s an email from B.

Roman Mars:
Yes!

Mikel McCavana:
With answers to all of our questions.

Roman Mars:
Oh, nice. So what did they have to say for themselves? Like what kind of questions did you ask?

Mikel McCavana:
So we asked kind of the gamut really of everything related to from handwriting, whether was it his handwriting, how did he feel about that handwriting being omnipresent in Real Books throughout the world to like, how did it feel to create this thing that some people have major beefs or major problems with in terms of how it’s affected jazz. And he had answers to all of those questions.

Roman Mars:
So it wasn’t his handwriting?

Mikel McCavana:
It was. He says, “Yes, the handwriting is mine. Although it looks amateurish to me now, but it’s quite a hoot to see it everywhere. Someone created a Real Book font based on my hand, it’s close, but no cigar.” Throwing a little bit of shade at Hal Leonard.

Roman Mars:
Did they have a sense of the phenomenon that it was going to become when they were making it?

Mikel McCavana:
Definitely not. So on that note, he says, “We had no idea in our wildest dreams it would become the phenomenon that it is. Countless times we’ve personally seen the Real Book used in bars, clubs, schools, and wedding receptions. It’s everywhere. In 2018, I visited a friend of a cousin who had a home recording studio and there were six Real Books scattered around the room.”

Roman Mars:
And if he’s keeping up this level of secrecy, you can’t just point to him and say, “Hey, I did that.” It must be a really tough temptation. If I see my book that Kurt and I did for 99% Invisible out in the world, you bet, I’m going to say, well hey, I’m that guy. He’s had to do that for like 40 years and never saying anything about it. I guess, some of the bigger issues with the Real Book that we talk about, kind of the copyright and the codification of a style, did he have any sort of insight into that kind of thing?

Mikel McCavana:
Yeah. It’s really interesting what he said about that. And now I’m quoting directly from what he wrote to me, “The Real Book truly changed the world in many good ways, but also not so good. The intent was to create a tool for learning tunes, but not something to be used on the bandstand. Its proliferation into clubs created a negative effect seemingly dictating what and how to play.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. Well, that… he’s really hitting the nail on the head.

Mikel McCavana:
And actually, even more on that, he says, “Never was there any intent to codify anything. The book was meant to help people learn tunes and beyond what is in the book, it’s the responsibility of the musician to listen to as many versions as possible to form one’s own sense of how to play the tune. That’s why we listed some different recording sources at the bottom of tunes. Every recording has its own tempo and key, melodic interpretation form and reharmonizations and therein lie many opportunities to create your own version.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. That is so interesting because he basically agrees with most of the critiques of the Real Book that people had when you talk to them.

Mikel McCavana:
Yeah. He’s essentially saying almost the exact same thing that Carolyn Wilkins said, the Berklee professor that we talked to towards the end of the piece, basically. Almost even word for word, it’s kind of amazing. And what’s also striking is that he basically says the same thing that Nicholas Payton, who is the musician that we talked to also said about the Real Book. If you remember Nicholas Payton was saying that you can’t really learn jazz from a book-

Roman Mars:
At all. Yeah.

Mikel McCavana:
And B, in his answers, says, “I think books are fine for theory and learning tunes, but no amount of book reading will substitute for the actual act of playing music, feel, timing, groove, and improvisation need to be learned by doing.” It’s kind of amazing that like, he is saying basically the exact same thing that we heard from Nicholas Payton here.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. That’s really remarkable. What about this need for anonymity? Like, is this something that… I mean, obviously at this point, if people knew about it, he’s not getting prosecuted for anything really realistically at this point. So what is that all about?

Mikel McCavana:
Yeah. It kind of seems like he likes the mystery and he likes keeping up the mystery. I’m going to quote again, from what he wrote, “The internet is full of articles and YouTube videos about the Real Book and chat rooms all over the web are rife with discussions about its origins with zillions of different opinions. That’s what’s fun about it. Keep the mystery alive. Why mess with an urban legend?”

Roman Mars:
I like this guy. I couldn’t agree more. Let’s not mess with it. Let him have his anonymity.

Mikel McCavana:
I don’t think we’ll mess with that.

Roman Mars:
Sounds good. Well, thank you, Mikel. This was so much fun.

Mikel McCavana:
Thanks, Roman. Thanks so much.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Mikel McCavana. Edited by Emmett FitzGerald, music by our director of sound Sean Real. Mix by Ameeta Ganatra. Delaney Hall is the senior producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Lasha Madan, Katie Mingle, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Special thanks this week to author and professor Gerald Horne, who we also interviewed for this story. You can check out Nicholas Payton’s music at nicholaspayton.com and follow him on Instagram @NicholasPayton. If you want to read more history of fake books, check out Barry Kernfeld’s books “Pop Song Piracy” and “The Story Of Fake Books.”

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is scattered across the North American continent right now, but will always be centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all @radiotopia.fm. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99pi.org. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. I am sure there is an entire Reddit thread already devoted to trying to figure out who made the first Real Book. Don’t do it, guys. It doesn’t really matter. And mysteries are fun. Instead, spend that energy going through the archive and sharing your favorite episode with a friend at 99pi.org.

 

 

Credits

Production

Reporter Mikel McCavana spoke with Jeff Leonard, musician and music educator at Berklee College of Music, Boston University, New England Conservatory; Steve Swallow, musician and composer; Barry Kernfeld, musicologist and author; Jeff Schroedl, Executive Vice President at Hal Leonard; Nicholas Payton; Musician, owner of Paytone Records, and creator of the Black American Music (BAM) movement; Carolyn Wilkins, musician and professor at Berklee College of Music; Gerald Horne, author and Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston.

This episode was edited by Emmett FitzGerald.

  1. Erik

    I bought my Real Book in the early 2000s from a music store. It was an under the counter purchase. “I’m looking for a *real* nice book that I heard you guys carry.” Over the counter comes a heavy brown paper bag. I can’t remember what I paid for it. It’s still on my bookshelf today though.

    I was a jazz student at the time and the rule at my school was that you could have a real book at rehearsal, but never on the bandstand.

    1. daGUY

      Same! I bought mine before the official Hal Leonard version came out, and it was exactly the same experience: the guy at the store had a stack of them hidden under the counter. It was just this weird unspoken thing, where everyone knew about it and everyone had one, but nobody could “officially” acknowledge it!

  2. Mike

    I was 100% expecting to hear Adam Neely (youtube creator, music educator, Berklee alum) on this episode, and was so surprised that the voice of Mikel McCavana WASN’T Adam Neely. Their voices are so close!
    Excellent episode as usual :)

  3. Matt Rettig

    Loved the episode! One thing you guys left out of the story: it’s not a REAL Real Book unless & until it’s completely dog-eared, coffee-stained, full of your own scribbled notes, and generally just in sad shape. I’ve only been playing jazz for about a year and mine is already properly dirty. My horn teacher made that a clear requirement!

  4. Just the précis I needed! Prior to this, my only awareness of The Real Book was its unfortunate simplifying effect on The Girl From Ipanema, as recounted in a YouTube explainer by bassist Adam Neely (it’s about 30 minutes long and probably works reasonably well audio-only). I’m very glad to have the additional context!

  5. Dan Randlett

    Good stuff. In my experience most people who stick with jazz use The Real Book as intended: a starting point for learning the basic structure of a tune. Reharmonizing everything in there is a big ask, but it helps to have a baseline for gigs and then play then tunes that your ensemble truly loves the “proper way.” Also, the font that they developed off of that cat’s handwriting has worked its way into a lot of other music instruction funnily enough.

  6. Thanks Mikel and Emmett for this historic look at The Real Book! A very cool informative read and entertaining listen! As an owner of an original Real Book I feel a slight – a very slight – part of Jazz history :)

    I’ll also share this on my Jazz Guitar Life site.

    Thanks again and take care.

    Lyle Robinson
    http://www.thejazzguitarlife.com

  7. The latest trend is the app iReal. Just chords, with useful features like instant transposition to different keys. It’s all I need, as a bassist, to carry myself through a gig.

    Now that Hal Leonard owns the rights to all the songs, it’s iReal that’s skirting copyright law! The app comes empty, then you go to the forums to download song packs. The files are just chord progressions, anyway, which aren’t copyrightable.

  8. matt L

    I see you guys have chosen the table of contents from an older edition as the banner image here – amongst real jazz heads “A Call For All Demons is tune #1” is a shibboleth on the order of “Han shot first” for Star Wars heads

  9. Matt

    Goddamnit, the story turned out to be racist again half way through. Should have seen it coming given it was about 20th century USA.

  10. RJS

    Thanks for this podcast! I’m an amateur musician, didn’t earn $$/go pro (by my choice). I had seen some ‘Fake Books’ out there, didn’t know about the ‘Real Book;, but it makes perfect sense. No starting musician can afford the costs of staying legal (with the exception of Musicians Union Dues to allow them access to the tunes).
    Add this to the history of How Piracy Helps (like Apple computers/SW) (another facet of history I was a small part of).

  11. John B

    Excellent article! Very well researched. It really brought back memories of when I played gigs a long time ago with an old cordovox player who had one of the original fake books and I remember looking at it and seeing how weird the titles looked in the old Courier typewriter font and the mis-aligned staves that made it look like the songs were literally cut and pasted in. But there were so many tunes in that book! I asked him where he got it he said “they’re illegal-I don’t remember who I bought it from, but they’re very hard to get.” I borrowed it from him and later his health turned bad and he died before I had a chance to return it to him and I didn’t know any of his relatives so I decided to keep it for myself in memory of him. But these people are right as the chord changes and such are really outdated in a number of these tunes.

  12. David B

    As a non-jazz musician, my ancient fake book serves another purpose — when my aging parents want to hear or sing a certain song from their childhood, they know I can probably fumble thru the changes on the piano. And that’s all I use it for — a little family entertainment. Dunno where the old man got it.

    Yeah, I bought a Real Book several years ago. I’m sure it was the legal version, because I didn’t have to go thru any skullduggery. It’s useful for the same kind of thing, and it’s a lot easier to read.

  13. I bought the four original fake books under the counter when I was first starting out in 1961, and I still have them: Volumes 1 and 2 of 1000 songs each, Volume 3 of 500 songs, and Volumes 1 and 2 of Modern Jazz. They were $15 each, a sizable sum then.

    The contents of them have since become available in various extra-legal digital collections, such as the Million Dollar Library.

    The problem with them was that the changes were nowhere near correct for jazz, so one had to be creative to use them. At best, they were a source for melodies and a loose suggestion for the harmonies.

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