Here’s a great podcast episode about The Real Book and the impact it has had on jazz. There’s a really cool backstory as well!
The Real Book - 99% Invisible
Since the mid-1970s, almost every jazz musician has owned a copy of the same book. It has a peach-colored cover, a chunky, 1970s-style logo, and a black plastic binding. It’s delightfully homemade-looking—like it was printed by a bunch of teenagers at a Kinkos. 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.
But if you were going to music school in the 1970s, you couldn’t just buy a copy of the Real Book at the campus bookstore. Because the Real Book… was illegal. The world’s most popular collection of Jazz music was a totally unlicensed publication. It was a 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. 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 that you can learn from a book.
I have an iPad app called the unrealBook filled with every song from at least 15 fake or real books. It’s a good starting place, but the very idea of jazz music is to invent new ways of playing songs.