By Kevin Harper
History of Fake Books and Lead Sheets
Imagine this: you’re a famous jazz player; you’re busy on the road going from gig to gig. One day you come up with a great tune and want to write it down and orchestrate it for your ensemble, but orchestration takes a long time. So instead, you write down the melody and then write out the general chords and any potential rhythms. When you read it during the gig (for the first time no doubt!) you and your bandmates have a general outline of what needs to happen – everything else is improvised. Because improvisations are different everytime, writing down the “correct” way of playing any tune in the old days was impossible.
As jazz grew in popularity, everyone wanted to hear all the popular songs, but the problem was that many of these tunes were hard to find or unpublished. Eventually, lead sheets were circulated from band to band and that became the standard way of notating tunes.
The original fake book, known as The Real Book, contained illegally reproduced, copyrighted songs. It was meant to be used as a textbook of standard jazz tunes. The publishers wanted to pawn off the tunes in the book as “real” versions of the songs. However, legal battles ensued, so any other future books had to have a different name. Thus, the term fake book was born from The Real Book. It also has a double-meaning in that the performer is “faking” his way through the song because the arrangement is not the same as the original version.