The Fake Book: Setting the Stage for Modern Copyright Laws


As a young jazz musician striving to learn as much as I could about the amazing breadth of songs available and memorized by performing musicians across the globe, I learned that jazz is all about the oral tradition. In other words, jazz is primarily transferred from musician to musician via word of mouth. Because songs are typically timeless and are performed by many different musicians despite their original author, they had to be taught to other musicians somehow. However, not all jazz musicians have the access to jazz masters or the time to learn and memorize orally. With that being said, The Real Book, a publication created in the 70’s by two students at Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, has been used extensively to help young musicians learn about and memorize the many jazz standards that have survived to this day. I still use The Real Book as a reference point today, but did not fully understand the implications of The Real Book’s mainstream use until I investigated the history of how these 1,000+ jazz standards came to be bound together in the coveted book. Back in the late 1920’s-early 1930’s, jazz was a completely oral and aural tradition, passed by musician to musician in small exclusive circles. Only a “jazz master”, one who had either composed or had learned from other jazz musicians the proper chord progressions and melodies of specific songs popular at the time, was able to share his knowledge with other musicians. However, around this time, musicians would begin sharing rudimentary, hand-made sheets of music with one another in an underground setting for other musicians to follow in performance settings. The music industry was outraged and enacted many legal measures to try and stop the mainstream distribution of this copyrighted material.

Eventually, by 1942, these single sheets grew into bound compilations of hundreds and hundreds of songs, which had been dubbed “Fake Books” by the music community. At this point, George Goodwin, a radio station director, began to publish a version of these fake books on small, 3 by 5 index cards. These “Fake Books”, as well as the published versions of these books, began to be copied and distributed underground, prompting the FBI to get involved. However, when criminal charges were brought against bootleggers, they received minimum fines and did not face jail-time. Why is it that after years and years of scrutiny by the music industry and federal government, the punishments for these actions were virtually negligible?

What I discovered is that at this time, the music industry discovered that there was a real benefit to the distribution of this music. More and more musicians were able to learn and play the music of the masters, for example, Miles Davis, and this lead to increased record sales, increased amount and quality of performances, and a further popularization of jazz as a music and art form. Once the music industry saw this benefit, they capitalized on it, creating legal versions of these fake books that essentially eliminated bootlegging and promoted the widespread sharing of jazz music. Out of this philosophy, The Real Book was born.

Looking at how pirating music has affected the music industry today, I see many parallels to how current musicians think about the sharing of their music. The mixtape, which is essentially an album of free music, has become more and more popular amongst musicians as a marketing tool for future LPs and for those who are looking to make a name for themselves. Platforms such as Soundcloud, Spotify and Youtube have furthered this initiative, making music streaming free for the masses and giving the average music consumer a way to get a taste of an artist’s music for no additional cost in a way that still benefits the artist. Artists have made public statements stating how beneficial streaming has been for their success. In the future, it will be interesting to see how the leaking of albums online well before their release date has affected musicians, but I foresee that it can do more good than it does harm. Jazz would have never reached the amount of musicians it has reached today if it weren’t for the Fake Book.

Source: Pop Song Piracy, Fake Books, and a Pre-history of Sampling, Barry Kernfeld