Bobby Bradford: Self-Determination in the Great Basin


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Born in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1934 and raised between Dallas and Los Angeles, trumpeter Bobby Bradford began playing with Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles in the 1950s, and replaced Don Cherry in an unrecorded Coleman quartet during the early 1960s. However, the most significant partnership in Bradford's musical life was with the clarinetist and composer John Carter (1928-1991), with whom he worked and recorded from 1969 into the 1980s a very different brand of free-bop. Now a professor at Pomona College, Bradford continues to lead his Mo'Tet and is being celebrated at the 2009 Festival of the New Trumpet in New York.

Bobby Bradford

All About Jazz: Could you talk a bit about who you're working with presently?

Bobby Bradford: I have a group called the Mo'tet, and for a while we were working about once a month in this Italian restaurant in Sierra Madre, but we could play whatever we wanted—no restaurant music or anything. That band has William Jeffrey on drums; Roberto Miranda on bass; I use Don Preston on piano and on saxophone Chuck Manning; Ken Rosser on guitar; and Michael Vladtkovitch on trombone.

But when I go to New York or Chicago, there's never enough money to bring my own guys. The same thing happened with John Carter and his Octets; when he'd perform outside of LA, they'd fit him in with some good players but they didn't know his music nearly as well. The only person he brought with him was me. When I go to New York, I work with great players—[reedman] Marty Ehrlich and David Murray,Andrew Cyrille on drums, Mark Dresser and Mark Helias on bass, and Benny Powell on trombone—but they aren't my working band.

AAJ: And how did you get in connection with the Festival of the New Trumpet?

BB: Well, I was introduced to Dave Douglas and played in the festival in 2005, which was dedicated to Lester Bowie. I had one set with my group before another Texas trumpeter, Dennis Gonzalez, went on. Again, I used New York musicians like Ehrlich, Dresser, and [bassist] Ken Filiano—it was two basses and two horns in a quartet. This year, since it was set up around what I'm doing, I'll have a quintet, an octet, and [trumpeters] Jeremy Pelt and Eddie Henderson will be playing as well as Ambrose Akinmusire, who has written a piece for me that I haven't heard.

AAJ: What about recording these performances? Have you given any thought to it?

BB: It's a serious possibility, but I would have to clear it with everybody involved. I remember a gig I was on with [drummer] Billy Higgins not too long before he died, at Yoshi's in Oakland with [saxophonist] Dewey Redman and [bassist] Charnett Moffett. It was great, they'd set up everything and Dewey didn't want it recorded or released so that was that.

AAJ: Could you give us some background on your growing up, early life, and how you got involved in music?

BB: In my family there were two boys (my brother and me), and we left Mississippi when I was about ten or eleven because my mother had remarried. We left and came to Los Angeles in 1944 or '45 because my stepfather had family out there and as they were doing well, he figured we would do well too. So we stayed in Los Angeles for one semester of the school year, and midway through we packed up again and moved across country to Detroit. We stayed there the other half of the school year.

In the summer of 1946, my mother sent my brother and me to live with my real father in Texas. I went to high school in Dallas and graduated in 1952, at which point I moved to Austin to attend a small Methodist college there called Sam Houston University. At the same time in Austin there was another small black Methodist college called Tillotson, and they merged in about 1954 to become Huston-Tillotson University. I went there the spring of 1952 and left in the end of the school year at the end of 1953. After that I went to Los Angeles to stay with my mother and stepfather. It was then that I got to play with Ornette Coleman.

AAJ: So you didn't know Ornette in Texas.

BB: I met him in Texas but I didn't play with him until Los Angeles.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: When did music first become a major force in your life?

BB: I was taking piano lessons when I was a kid in Mississippi, because my mother had told me to—but I wasn't involved on any deep level. Music didn't hit me until about 1949 or 1950, when I was in high school. That's when I first heard the beboppers and that's when I was swept off my feet.

AAJ: What made you choose trumpet—or were you able to choose?

BB: That was what happened to be available—the cornet, really. It's not like my parents laid out a bunch of instruments for me and said 'pick one.' There was a guy who lived across the street that had an old, beat up cornet which he was willing to part with. I played it in the high school band; some of my classmates in that band were [pianist] Cedar Walton and [saxophonists] David "Fathead" Newman and James Clay. When I came back to LA in the summer of '53, I ran into Ornette Coleman again after having met him in Austin. He came to Austin to be the best man at a wedding and afterwards they had a little jam session—that was the first time I heard him play. When I ran into him later, we furthered our acquaintance and he invited me to come over and rehearse tunes with him, and we became good friends. We played together until I went into the military in the summer of '54.

AAJ: Was it an immediately musical friendship or was it a regular friendship that developed into music later?

BB: Oh, this was music right away.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: What impressed you about his way of approaching music? Was it different that how you had previously approached playing?

BB: Well, if you go back to 1953-54, bebop was the music of the day and Ornette was still developing as a musician. He was still pretty much in the bebop mold, but he began to develop some very original compositions that had bebop roots, and had things that were different—trying to improvise on something other than a chord sequence.

AAJ: Had you been thinking at all in those directions before you and Ornette got connected?

BB: Absolutely not. Some people try to muddy the waters there, make me look like I was doing something that I had no thoughts about before. I was working my way up the bebop ladder in much the same way he was, actually. He is a very talented composer, and much of his early music sounds like bebop—the lines on the first couple albums, you can hear that connection immediately. But when you hear him improvise, there's also something peculiar going on outside that tradition. That's also where he caught all the flak.

AAJ: I think [pianist] Walter Norris said something to the effect that he didn't even know his own tunes. Clearly there was a lag between what he was doing and whether people had an inkling of what he was up to and then trying to catch up.

BB: That's what Walter said to me once. But yeah, after he left Los Angeles for New York in 1959, people realized they had to pay serious attention to what he was doing and could not dismiss it. My mother used to write me and tell me that the guy I used to play with [Ornette] was in the paper again. In fact, he made his first recording in LA in 1958 [Something Else, Contemporary]. But he went on to a jazz camp at Lenox, Massachusetts, and then to New York.

AAJ: What was the Los Angeles musical community like apart from Ornette, as you were climbing the bebop ladder?

BB: It was primarily bebop a la Charlie Parker, and also a sort of lighter—what would come to be called "West Coast Jazz," which I find totally inaccurate because the guys playing in a lighter style were clearly rooted in bebop chords and so forth. There was [saxophonists] Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, [trumpeter] Art Farmer, as well as [baritone saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan, [trumpeters] Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers and Don Fagerquist—good musicians that played a much less aggressive style of bebop. LA was full of players; it was very busy and I don't know that there was much money to be made, unless one was working in film or television. But there were lots of places to play and lots of activity during that period.

AAJ: How long were you in the military?

BB: I was in the Air Force 46 months. I went in September of 1954, and I got out in October of '58. I was discharged in San Antonio, and that's when I decided to come back to Austin and further my education.

AAJ: It seems pretty clear to me that as far as making a life for yourself, education and a more stable lifestyle were in the offing—something other than music would offer.

BB: The school I went to and graduated from, the only thing they offered was Music Ed. Growing up in Texas if you thought about going to college and you were Black, it was as a music major. The schools were very segregated at the time, and the little black schools only offered music education. You assumed that when you graduated, you'd get a job as a high school band director—you weren't going to play in the Dallas Symphony or be a concert librarian. That was totally unrealistic. I had no big master plan of going to New York and tackling the big city. Firstly, I wanted to learn how to play the music I loved—that was my concern, rather than to get famous playing the trumpet.

Of course, during military service I got married and had a couple of kids. So I left with a family and I had the GI Bill available to me—it was about 75 miles from San Antonio to Austin, and I was enrolled straightaway at university. I went to see the guy in charge of music at Huston-Tillotson and he gave me a pretty big scholarship offer to return. It made a lot of economic sense to me to go to Huston-Tillotson, have my tuition paid so I could make rent every month and put food on the table, and I finished in three semesters.

I think it was the fall of 1960 that Ornette called me to New York to make the Free Jazz album (Atlantic) and that was right in the middle of the semester. I told him I wouldn't do it—I talked to professors and they all said I'd fail or get an incomplete that I couldn't recover from. I wanted to finish my education, get a job, and provide for my family, so that was the answer. At any rate, I didn't go in 1960 and in 1961 I dropped out of school for a bit because I needed to work full time. Ornette sent for me again (he and Don Cherry had parted ways) and this time I decided I would go to New York.

Bobby BradfordI had about another year left in school, but since it was the summer my wife and I talked about it, and I left in summer 1961. During periods when he wasn't working, I came back to Texas (my wife and kids were in Dallas near her mother). I didn't bring them along on the initial trip, because I didn't know what was going to happen. Ornette was auditioning bassists and drummers; he finally got [drummer] Charles Moffett in the band, and at one point it was Jimmy Garrison on bass (he left in 1962 to go with John Coltrane) and at another, David Izenzon. In 1962, I brought my family to the East Village, but Ornette was having serious thoughts about boycotting the clubs. He didn't think he was being paid enough (indeed, he probably wasn't), and there was a big gap between black and white players. He couldn't expect to go into the Five Spot and no matter how packed it was he wouldn't get paid what someone like Gerry Mulligan was making. He decided he wouldn't play for a while, and I left the band in 1963 for lack of work. The last band we had was with Moffett and Izenzon.

Once it was clear we weren't going to be working, I took my family back to Austin and finished college. I graduated from Huston Tillotson in May of '63 and got a job teaching in Crockett, Texas, out in the Hill Country. I was the high school band director from 1963 to 1964. My wife and kids packed up at the end of that year and we all came back to Los Angeles.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: Being in small town Texas wasn't the right thing at the time.

BB: I can't tell you how rough it was—it was dreadful. It was the kind of town in the Baptist Belt where people would look through my trash and ask me about beer or wine bottles in the trash. Of course I had some good friends there, too, but I couldn't stay and we moved out. We stayed with my mother at first, and I looked around for a job and there weren't any available for a music teacher from Texas (even if I'd been from LA, it wouldn't have mattered). So I took a job as a workman's comp adjuster. If you get a blue suit, you know, you can go to work the next day. By 1966-1967, [reedman] John Carter called me out of the blue. I knew his name; he was teaching in the school systems in Los Angeles and I was working 9-5, practicing a little but not really playing. He got my number from Ornette, introduced himself, and wanted to start a band playing original music.

So we got together right away and started talking, and found that we had a lot in common—we both studied to be teachers, both had families, and we were both interested in the New Music. We searched around and found a bassist and drummer who were sympathetic. I think the first public appearance we made was in 1968—we were rehearsing regularly for about a year before we got a job. That first band was with Tom Williamson on bass and Bruz Freeman, [saxophonist] Von and [guitarist] George's brother, on drums.

AAJ: How did you select that pair for your "rhythm section?"

BB: We put an ad out that we were looking for a band, and not a lot of people showed up. Most that did, once they saw the music and heard us play, they bailed out right away—good, strong beboppers, but if you didn't have a chord chart they weren't interested.

AAJ: Well, Bruz played with [pianist] Hampton Hawes and people like that, too.

BB: Sarah Vaughan, also—he was a good bebop drummer, but he was real open. He liked what he heard right away, as did Tom. We were both writing—John more than I was. We were doing original music, something that either of us wrote, and they were into it.

AAJ: What struck me immediately upon hearing Seeking (Revelation, 1969) was how different it was. I'd been through the Ornette and Don Cherry records and was as a listener familiar with that language, and was expecting more of the same, but it really isn't.

BB: That's right. A lot of people who aren't careful make that assumption—I get people all the time who say "you listened to Don Cherry, didn't you" and I have to stop them. That's like saying "Chet Baker listened to Harry James"—it's so remote. Don was a wonderful trumpet player and a very talented guy, but the connection between his playing and mine—it's just not really there.

AAJ: You've got an incisive and very direct sound. I was going to ask who you were really listening to at that point.

BB: When I first played trumpet, I listened to what anybody else would—Dizzy, Miles, Fats Navarro. I think Fats was my favorite out of all those guys, but I liked Kenny Dorham and all of them. I liked a lot of saxophonists too. But beyond that, the only thing John and I had in common with Ornette was philosophy. The lines that John wrote had very little to do with Ornette—the way he chose to develop them, you know.

AAJ: There was a sense of orchestral color to it, too, and well before John had done any large ensemble compositions—a weight behind it.

BB: John was a thoroughly schooled classical musician with a master's degree from Boulder. He wasn't fooling around with the clarinet—he'd been playing it all the way through, and later on began playing saxophones so he could get work. Anybody with that background isn't going to throw it away, especially when they begin to write. People would say "he's trying to write classical music," and two bars into a piece you knew right away it was American music with a connection to jazz. When people compared him to Ornette, John would get really upset—after about five questions about Ornette Coleman he'd say 'we can move on now.' If you play improvised music without chords, you become an Ornette Coleman disciple, so to speak. To that extent, they just put us in the free jazz camp.

AAJ: What was the response like when you started performing out as a group?

Bobby BradfordBB: Around LA? There was just a small community; we played places that would seat 50 people or on the university campuses where if you played interesting music, they'd hire you. Generally, most people looked at us pretty strange—one guy I had known back in the '50s said "man, you used to be a pretty good trumpeter, but that Ornette just ruined you" [laughs].

AAJ: Also, in the latter half of the '60s, performance spaces for creative music were few, because of the influx of rock and psychedelic music.

BB: Of course, that impacted everybody, yes, but even now LA is a town of post-bop players. There is some new music activity, but it's limited and the places are hard to come by and don't last long. In spite of that, there is a population of individuals who like playing this music—younger people like [reedman] Vinny Golia and the Cline brothers. Also, [pianist] Horace Tapscott was around during that earlier period.

AAJ: I was going to ask about him—you both recorded for Flying Dutchman, and I was sure you'd had a fair amount of contact.

BB: I knew him; actually, I knew him before I was in the military and at that point he was still playing trombone. By the '60s, he'd started to do writing for large ensembles, and it wasn't really that close to what we were doing—it was more modal. Some wonderful players came through that band he had.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: Recording must have brought notoriety to the band—were there calls coming from out of town?

BB: Our first record was in 1969 on Revelation. We didn't get calls from New York because of that record—we got good reviews, but we were still "West Coast guys." It managed to get around to some of the European magazines. Bob Thiele heard it, and came to LA in 1970 looking for what was on offer. We went and auditioned for him, as did [saxophonist] Arthur Blythe and Horace Tapscott. He gave us a record date, and that became Flight for Four on Flying Dutchman. Then right after that we made another record for Revelation called Secrets, and after that was Self-Determination Music for Flying Dutchman again in 1971.

We got some press, but we didn't get any invitations to go anywhere and play. Thiele sat us down and said "well, guys, I hate to tell you this, but if you want to move from where you are in this little scene, you're going to have to go to New York or your careers will just sit." John and I talked about it and opted to stay in LA—we had families that we didn't want to move, and we weren't going to pack up and leave them either.

So we played more around LA than we had before, but in the summer of 1971 I went to England on holiday. I took my horn and had a couple of names around London to look up, like the writer Richard Williams. He gave me the number of [drummer] John Stevens, and we made a record that summer with [saxophonist] Trevor Watts, [vocalist-guitarist] Julie Tippetts, Yaron Herman on bass, and an American trombonist, Bob Norden [Bobby Bradford with John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Nessa]. I came back after the holiday and shared that information with John, how exciting and fruitful it could be in Europe, and we talked about getting booked over there but at the same time, it didn't result in hopping on the next plane, either.

Then I went back over in 1973, met up with John Stevens and Trevor Watts and [bassist] Kent Carter. I decided that I would stay over about ten months. We gigged around London and took the ferry over to Holland, got a van and drove around France and Belgium. We played a lot even though there wasn't any money; that record I made on tour, Love's Dream, was made after two weeks in Paris at Le Chat qui Peche. The owner of the Emanem label, Martin Davidson, traveled with us in the van and recorded that stint, and we picked the best performances to release.

AAJ: The reception sounds like it was pretty good over there—Le Chat was a noted performance space at the time. Were audiences receptive?

BB: Oh yes, we played the BIM Huis in Amsterdam and people were stomping and cheering—they loved it.

AAJ: You hadn't had anything like that in LA, I assume.

BB: Oh no, nothing like that. In Europe, we played places that seated two or three hundred people, as well as pub gigs. Later on, I went to Portugal and Italy with other groups—anyway, I loved it but there was no money and I had to support myself as well as family back home, so I came back. During the time I was gone, John had put down the saxophones and flute to focus on the clarinet exclusively. He made a recording, Echoes from Rudolph's (Ibedon, 1977) in a band with his son Stanley on bass and William Jeffrey on drums.

AAJ: Rudolph's was his space, right?

BB: It was a dentist's studio and for whatever reason, the dentist couldn't decide what to do with the place. He didn't want it empty, and a bassoonist named Rudolph had somehow turned it into his living space. Rudolph decided to have Sunday afternoon concerts, and I don't know how he and John met, but they went on for a long time with these concerts.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: Were you playing much with him when you came back, or not as much?

BB: Oh yes, sure, whenever we could get together and play, we did. But I lived in Pasadena, which was on the opposite end of the city. I had a little loft that I called the Little Bighorn, and sometimes John would come over there and play. We were doing what we could to keep things happening, with gigs at UCLA, Pasadena City College, Cal-State and other places in the Los Angeles Basin.

AAJ: You were also teaching again at that point.

BB: I started teaching about the same time John and I got together, actually—teaching sixth grade elementary school in 1967-1968. I was in La Puente, California, in the Basin. I started to teach music in the Pasadena City College in 1974-1975, and also at Pomona City College during that time, just one class each. Stanley Crouch orchestrated my teaching work at Pomona, because he was on faculty in the Black Studies department there.

AAJ: He was still playing music [drums] then, too.

BB: Sure, he had a band called Black Music Infinity, and sometimes I played with them—me, [bassist] Wilber Morris, Arthur Blythe, David Murray and [flutist] James Newton. David was a student at Pomona in 1975, and Newton was in the area because his father was in the military. He found the Pomona College campus accessible.

Bobby Bradford / John Carter John Carter and Bobby Bradford

AAJ: And you had the Extet that you were leading as well.

BB: Yeah, the name came up because I wanted to make sure each band I put together wouldn't be confused with some other group I had. A few weeks later I might be calling something the "Whet-Tet." At that point, the name didn't have much meaning—James Newton and I were both being interviewed on a radio show, and I don't think we used that same configuration of guys again, except maybe at the Little Bighorn on Sundays.

AAJ: That record [Midnight Pacific Airwaves, Entropy Records, 1977/2009] for me, when I got it, it seemed out of left field because that period of your work wasn't too well documented. As far as what you were able to do, had the climate changed in any way in LA so that you could perform more regularly?

BB: It had to a degree, but I must confess it was never good. I can't say any period was a golden period—when you have to open your own club just to play, the pickings are pretty slim. Some people were not willing to make the move—John and I did things around town, but it wasn't like people were going to call you. You had to orchestrate the whole event.

AAJ: As far as teaching goes, was that a viable enough thing?

BB: The beauty of that was that I had one class on each campus, and it gave me some income each month that left me to work at what I was doing, go out of town. For example, when I went to New York to record with Ornette in 1971 (Science Fiction and Broken Shadows, Columbia) that one class didn't restrict my time. I could get out of town for a week and manage to keep things together. That helped a lot—I don't know what I would have done without it.

AAJ: Was there a group of students that you played with, sort of like proteges?

BB: Not really; nobody except for David Murray and James Newton. The class at Pasadena City College was a Black Music survey course covering blues, gospel, and jazz. There weren't any students in that class that were serious about playing music. I didn't teach "how to play" at either place, except that Stanley's band was at Pomona and some of his band mates also took his classes. He was writing plays and playing drums, and one thing led to another but what they hired me to do was teach a History of Jazz class—textbooks, listening to records, but no playing.

AAJ: It'd be easy to go down the path of discussing Stanley Crouch, and how the music has been perceived as a result of his words, but at that time he was very clear-cut in his involvement with the New Music.

BB: He back-stepped after he got to New York. He got to a point where he stopped playing the drums because he was ill-equipped to do what was necessary on the instrument. Instead, he chose to focus on writing. He also didn't like the post-Albert Ayler and late Coltrane stuff, that high-energy thing, and instead he took a stand that there were only a few valid people in the New Music—me, Ornette, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry and [bassist] Charlie Haden. He didn't think a lot of the other groups borne out of that. Some people say he did a complete about-face in New York, though I don't think that's true.

AAJ: Like anybody, his tastes shaped what he wrote about.

BB: Sure, and he was focused completely on writing.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: A record like Self-Determination Music is pretty dense, but there's a sense of space throughout your music, both on your own and with John Carter. Was that a conscious decision, to "open the music up" to a degree?

BB: The best I can answer that is that I never sat down and thought about a certain approach. How I write—and it was probably true for John as well—is determined by how I play. I'm not a person who wants to use a lot of noise effects in my music, though that doesn't mean I don't like to hear someone do it well. I still like to hear the trumpet played traditionally.

I like a lot of what Albert Ayler did and I love the late Coltrane music, Interstellar Space [Impulse, 1967] and things like that. People say it's coming from Ornette, too, but the only connection between the two is philosophical—playing music without chords. In fact, the big glaring thing was that Trane was willing to use drummers who didn't play time, whereas Ornette always had to have timekeeping in his music. That's huge. You're really out on a limb when you ask a drummer to play free, and you've got to be able to do something to back that up. John Carter and I both liked that a lot.

AAJ: It involves a lot of trust. But even as that music had become historically valid, there still wasn't a lot of recording or performing opportunity in the States for the New Music during the 1980s, for example.

Bobby BradfordBB: There never was much work. John came to attention with the Octet pieces, like Night Fire [Black Saint, 1981] and the Roots and Folklore series [Gramavision]. When that crystallized in his mind and we recorded it, those records became viewed as his best work, even though I think the Flying Dutchman records and the solo Moers album were very important also, as well as our duet repertoire [Tandem 1 & 2, Emanem, 1982]. It's like when Ornette won the Pulitzer he should've got in the late 1960s, when his work was still fresh, even though it's good that he finally was awarded for Sound Grammar [Sound Grammar, 2005]. That's good stuff, but his greatest was a long time ago. Of course that's just my opinion.

AAJ: It's tough because this music deserves recognition, but that recognition has to be timely and for the right things. You don't want to take the small nugget that's offered, either.

BB: Yes, that's very true. But it sure felt wonderful when we played as a duo at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland to about 800 people. If there was a way we could have figured out how to have a base in Europe, we would have done it. It just wasn't feasible—we couldn't come over with a knapsack and a horn, and just wing it. The audiences were there, though.

AAJ: Could you discuss a bit more in how you teach—is it structured from your experience?

BB: To some extent, but I don't just teach an oral history for 14 weeks. I only bring my personal experience into focus when it's about the music that I played. I precede it with a serious look at the blues and the Negro spiritual, especially as to how people can grasp their relationship to jazz. When I move to the New Orleans style, I don't talk about anything other than what's in books and on records. I take the class through Bix Beiderbecke and the Chicago sound, swing and Count Basie versus Tommy Dorsey, Lester Young, then from bebop up to the tail end. I only talk about my own life when it's a situation where I can say "I was there." People say that Eric Dolphy was the heavy in LA during the '50s, not Ornette, and I have to say "whoa" and stop them right there. I lived it, you know.

Selected Discography

Bobby Bradford/Frode Gjerstad/Ingebrigt Haker Flaten/Paal Nilssen-Love, Reknes (Circulasione Totale, 2009)

Vinny Golia Quartet, 'Sfumato (Clean Feed, 2003)

Bobby Bradford Mo'tet, Live at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Waterboy, 2003)

David Murray, Death of a Sideman (DIW, 1991)

John Carter, Castles of Ghana (Gramavision, 1985)

John Carter, Night Fire (Black Saint, 1980)

Bobby Bradford Extet, Midnight Pacific Airwaves (Entropy Stereo, 1977)

Bobby Bradford, Love's Dream (Emanem, 1973)

Bobby Bradford with John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (Nessa, 1971)

John Carter/Bobby Bradford Quartet, Flight for Four (Flying Dutchman, 1970)

New Art Jazz Ensemble, Seeking (Revelation, 1969)

Photo Credits

Page 1, 3: Frank Rubolino

Page 5: Brian McMillen


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