Matthew Shipp: Shipp Shape

Chris Rich By

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Matthew Shipp is a student of music, life and the constructs of the music business. He takes a deep dive into the marketplace with a fierce analysis of major, minor and truly microscopic movements. —Peter Gordon
Pianist Matthew Shipp is very keenly attuned to the details and nuances of what has to be the most forlorn and anemic environment imaginable for anything a sensible person would call business. Think of it as the sort of business ecosystem that resembles the least habitable places on earth, say a fumarole at the bottom of an ocean.

While showbiz jazz at least has a small business infrastructure commensurate with a mid-level touring rock band, free jazz has no such thing and tends to be a habitat for epiphytes or cacti.

There is resource scarcity in a disrupted wasteland of music industry failures, and shambles littering the landscape that intensify the level of effort needed to yield engagements or find willing purchasers for recordings.

The planetary economy sputters with weak, faint seeps of trickledown to track before evaporation takes a toll.

There are mirages and encroachments of touted imposters. Back in the days of national music retail chains, Shipp did his own market research on one such piano imposter encroachment. A new release was launched with enough frothy hype to float a battleship so Shipp was curious to see what sort of salutes would ensue for something run up so imposing a flagpole. He had befriended most of the retail shop buyers around Manhattan so he spent a month checking on sales.

The supersized jug of media bombast failed to convince anyone in the area to buy a single imposter unit across thirty days. Even then, it was clear that the notion of the "influential writer" was largely mythic, particularly in jazz, where the dirty little secret may be that many fans of the music could care less about writers, barring some unusually compelling content.

We now live in a time where unsupported lines of text are probably the least-favored form of content. It better be pretty compelling if people are to be expected to wade through it. It has to be helpful. A description is more useful than a review.

And this may well be the key to All About Jazz. It would rather be helpful than influential, rather be compelling than assertive, and description is a passion.

Shipp is alert to this change and roams the web to see where it meets him. It is an essential business tool for him. And, unlike some of his contemporaries, he makes less of a distinction about the content source. It can be a web version of an old media thing, a blog or a web publication. If anything, his adept engagement with web media has been a valuable aspect of how he earns a living, as it offsets the hazard potential and limited ubiquity that accrues from depending on old media.

He also uses the search engine system to keep an eye on piracy proliferation of his work, and has developed a good working sense of the process involved in applying what legal remedies there are, although there is extreme frustration on his part that piracy exists in a business with limited sales to begin with.

"Shutting down piracy sites is very difficult and something needs to be done with the big picture and in educating people that content is not free," Shipp says. "We pay for instruments. Our parents paid for music lessons when we were kids. Everybody in the food chain gets paid or you don't get the service, so why treat musicians and record companies as if they are dog shit that don't deserve cash for the immense time and effort given to do what they do?"

And he is attentive to the support elements, making sure his stuff is accurate and current.

His North America booking ace, Scott Davidson, uses the web extensively to find potential venue options. The main labels that have engaged him over the years, HatHut and Thirsty Ear, are in the leading edge among counterparts for deft use of web 2.0. Kevin Reilly, a devoted supporter of the teeming free jazz scene in New York and Philadelphia, obtains the additional leverage of a YouTube Channel to his own A&R efforts at Relative Pitch.

Chapter Index
Kevin Reilly Art Lange, Werner Uehlinger and Peter Gordon Performance and Touring Venues Near and Far Summed Up: A Hat Tip from Jim Steinblatt at ASCAP

Kevin Reilly

Reilly is like a 21st century counterpart to Dean Benedetti. Instead of a wire recorder, he uses a flip cam. And the trove he amasses goes straight to the world within a day or so of its creation, in an act of astonishing generosity. He's been so appreciative of the music made by Shipp and his community that he's organized his life around the idea of giving back without regard to the merits of credentials.

"I first heard Matthew Shipp in the David S. Ware Quartet," says Reilly. "In my opinion, he was the spark that drove that band. I'll buy anything with Matthew on it, he is a unique player and a singular musician in my mind. I really enjoy his solo performances.

"Initially I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia supporting the Ars Nova Workshop series. They did an AACM and Coltrane series that were just tremendous. I slowly started going to shows in New York at the Knitting Factory, Roulette, Tonic and then the Stone. Now there are new venues popping up all over Brooklyn. I have certain people in New York that play regularly that I try to never miss, like Tim Berne, Matana Roberts, Ingrid Laubrock, Nate Wooley and Mary Halvorson, but there are many others in New York that are criminally under-recognized that I see as often as I can. I'm thinking of Jemeel Moondoc, Connie Crothers, Catherine Sikora, John Blum, and the legendary subway player Tamio Shiraishi."

Reilly knows his way around the mix of venues and performance spaces with the thoroughness a field ecologist applies to his preferred ecotone.

"The venues in New York have all fled to Brooklyn," Reilly explains. "The only place in Manhattan that consistently books music I like is the Stone. I like maybe half of what Cornelia Street Cafe and the Jazz Gallery book. Brooklyn places come and go, but that seems to be changing. Roulette and Issue Project Room now have long-term homes in Brooklyn and the Shapeshifter Lab is the most promising venue to open up in a long time. Most places are door gigs which, sadly, is just the state of affairs these days. If the musicians don't get paid they will eventually stop hustling for gigs or pursue their art in the subways."

He is also a co owner of the well focused and thoughtful label, Relative Pitch.

"We are only a year and a half old so most of what I'm doing is busy work," says Reilly. "Emailing liner notes, credits and art back and forth. My label partner Mike Panico and I are always scrambling. We both have fulltime day jobs. For me the label is already a success. There are three great CDs out in the world that I'm honored to be associated with. And we have five more lined up for this year. I want to serve the musicians and help support the music.

As the Crow Flies"I'm particularly proud of the Jim Hobbs recording. I saw the chemistry between Jim [Hobbs] and Mary [Halvorson] the first time I saw them play together in Taylor Ho Bynum's sextet. I think that is an absolutely great record that was conceived, recorded and released in a year's time. As the Crow Flies (Relative Pitch, 2012) is among the best releases of the year, in my unbiased opinion. Our two prior releases were already recorded and just waiting for a label to want to release them.

"People send us work to consider for release, it's interesting to listen to stuff you have absolutely no preconceptions about. I wish we could put out more. I will give anything a fair listen and offer any help I can even if it doesn't fit into our schedule."

His YouTube channel may well be his most powerful contribution, and by free jazz standards it is pretty successful, with over 27,000 visits and 60 subscribers.

"The video thing was a fluke. I spent a great deal of effort tracking down Tamio Shiraishi. He was a founding member of Fushitsusha with Keiji Haino in 1978, and I heard about his solo playing in the subways. When I finally contacted him and arranged to see him in a subway in Queens at 1am I took along my son's flip cam to document it.

"Often, when Tamio plays I am the only person there and I felt that this incredible artist had to be documented—when Tamio plays the subway becomes a cathedral," Reilly concludes. "The other early videos I did were of artists I had become friendly with. I took video of Paul Flaherty, he has been a real friend and mentor to me along with Jack Wright, Vinny Golia and, more recently, Joe Morris. There is a real community somewhere in here; it is fractured and divided which is a real shame. There is strength in numbers."

Matthew Shipp Duos Art Lange, Werner Uehlinger and Peter Gordon

Shipp's first significant label mentor for work as an ensemble leader was Werner X. Uehlinger, parent to the now venerable Hat Hut Records label.

Art Lange handled the production for the session series in New York.

"I produced six different recording sessions with Matt for Hat Hut Records between August 1996 and November 1999," says Lange. "Four of the sessions were done at Seltzer Sound, which was a small studio inside the apartment of engineer Carl Seltzer. The piano, which had been Eubie Blake's during his lifetime and was willed to Carl after Blake's death, was in the living room. The control room was a very narrow adjacent room, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, with a tiny window looking out on the living room. It was a tight squeeze whenever there were more than two people in the control room. But Carl was a very easy person to work with, and the intimacy of the living room/studio obviously helped the musicians feel at home.

"The other two sessions were recorded at Sorcerer Sound. The notable thing about all six of the sessions was that no two had the same instrumentation. I think Matt was working with a lot of different musicians at this time (you'd have to check with him if this is accurate), and so appreciated the opportunity to improvise in response to different musicians, and to hear his musical ideas with different colors (instruments).

"Matt was always totally prepared for each session, and had a strong idea of how he wanted the music to sound, while still leaving space for spontaneity and surprises as they happened. I don't remember ever having a lengthy delay during any of the sessions, while the musicians rehearsed a piece of music. Nor do I remember having to make suggestions to Matt about the style or variety of the music, as producers sometimes have to do. Some musicians want, or need, some direction from the producer, but Matt knew what he wanted. My primary role was to serve as a pair of critical ears in the control room, to help Matt confirm that the music was working, and to help him get the results he wanted. I did not come into any of the sessions with a particular agenda, other than to do what was necessary to make sure Matt's goals were realized.

"As a result, my memory of the sessions were that they went smoothly and were very successful," Lange concludes. "I think those albums show off the breadth of Matt's music as it was at that time (which naturally has continued to evolve over time)—the thematic unity, the interaction, the concentration, and the willingness to take chances. I'm proud of having made a contribution to those albums... they are among my favorite sessions of the ones I have produced."

Uehlinger offers the long view for a sense of the shelf life of this remarkable series. He has always been motivated by how music answers him and lacks the commercial value calculations that typically drive the industry.

"I never thought about values when I produced a new musician," says Uehlinger. "At the point I recorded Matthew, he was known and had his own image in the United States. In Europe he was known for being the pianist of David Ware. I was interested in Matthew's potential and wanted to give him a platform to record in different formations. Matthew was very open and he did a great job. As expected the trio recording sold better/quicker than the others."

The titles still generate a trickle of sales after the run of years, and are benchmarks of Shipp's work from a very expansive time.

"An interest is still there," Uehlinger suggests. "It could/should be higher. The problem is that Matthew does not fit into the ECM sound as he comes from the jazz origins and has his own thinking and mathematics. He is not getting the [same] attention as pianists treated by softeners and coming out of the Bill Evans/Keith Jarrett school.

"The effect is remarkable, due to the missing stores—especially in Europe, where people have to learn to get active and look out for new sound carriers by mail. I have the feeling that the quantity of people becoming interested in the kind of music we are talking [about] is still the same; part of [the audience] has changed the taste and part of it is not active enough to be informed," Uehlinger concludes.

The disruptive impact of music piracy and the record store supply chain implosion have had a significant impact on both Uehlinger at Hat Hut and his American counterpart, Peter Gordon, at Thirsty Ear.

Matthew Shipp DuosGordon is even more detailed and emphatic.

"The 'culture of free' is music's tsunami," Gordon says. "When you have the highest level of music consumption the world has ever known and a failing music industry, you have a horrendous disconnect. Connectivity without responsibility, particularly in the privacy of your home, is a perfect way to suspend any moral standards. We need to push the reset button and create a fair trade system that works for everyone.

"Information overload is the basic currency of the Internet. It creates a drug-like dependency, whereby we crave more and more while being satisfied less and less. That principle works against the development of any artist's career, as they are given a nanosecond of attention before someone goes on to the next bits and bytes. We need to develop deeply engaging Internet experiences that promotes a lifelong relationship with artists and not just a flashpoint to fill a mindless moment in time. We need to revisit the notion of quality over quantity, as the rewards for a singular investment of time far outstrips an overstuffed warehouse of forgotten goods. Culture is in danger of being just another junk food commodity."

Gordon has a prodigious effort to deflect commoditization at his label, while retaining a sense of the playful that aims to make bridges between genres for Shipp to traverse in the Blue Series they have built as a collaboration.

"There are no prototypical Blue Series artists, as that in itself would be a point of restriction," Gordon asserts. "We are wedded to the notion that jazz is an expansionary language and are attracted to musicians whose vision takes their deep knowledge, puts it in a blender and serve a fresh mix. This is very difficult to achieve without it being marginalized as experimental or perceived as unfinished. So we look for artists who speak in complete thoughts in a uniquely personal way, unburdened by modern thought cycles. We encourage and nurture that freedom of spirit."

And despite grumblings from disgruntled wannabe purists, this free wheeling approach has been fruitful and compelling.

"Generally we've been well received," says Gordon. "We are deeply committed to motivating the senses and challenging the ear in ways that create a new listening experience. However, when you push boundaries and are restless in your drive, you court dissent. That's fine, but controversy for controversy sake is a vapid marketing ploy. Yet controversy in context of expansion and challenging convention with reinvention, is a healthy way to reexamine our own comfort zones and allow new possibilities."

Gordon and Shipp run the Blue Series as a joint venture, and this has given Gordon a very detailed handle on Shipp's acumen in this very particular and unpredictable mode of earning a living.

"Matthew Shipp is a student of music, life and the constructs of the music business," Gordon says. "He takes a deep dive into the marketplace with a fierce analysis of major, minor and truly microscopic movements. He can contextualize this knowledge, as it relates to his own career, and transpose it into an ever evolving road map. Yet remarkably, he is able to compartmentalize things, so his artistic output is pure, drawing from a deeply spiritual place which does not drink from the same well."

Performance and Touring

Shipp turned to his core community at home in Delaware to address the task of contacting potential presenters in North America where one of his oldest friends, Scott Davidson is a percussionist with the usual mixed array of homemade skills that everyone at this level acquires.

"There is no pattern or common template used to book Matthew Shipp and his trio, says Davidson. "It all depends on a number of factors. There are some difficult cities where, for example, people from the suburbs do not come into the city, and the city is usually where the venues are. Some areas, like most of Florida, seem only to want smooth jazz, and Matt is far from that. Some cities Matt plays regularly, like Philadelphia, are where he gets a good crowd no matter if it is the trio or a solo piano concert. Universities can pay a lot of money, but sometimes not so much. It all depends on their budget, and one never knows if it is large or small.

"There is no one formula. My style is to be polite, straightforward, and honest, all the while trying to get as much money for the musicians as I can. Presenters can smell show business bullshit as soon as they answer the phone, and really don't have time for a sales presentation. Most venues that present jazz know who Matt is anyway, but the ones who don't I usually direct to the website, and talk up a little. I send out hundreds of emails, and make phone calls, and spend a lot of time researching venues on the web, and this work pays off.

"I met Matt when we were teenagers, and we both were studying with Boysie Lowery, who taught Clifford Brown and jazz vibes player Lem Winchester. I was a drummer. We had our lesson back-to-back and then, after both of our lessons, we would all three play together. I remember we played "Joy Spring," by Clifford Brown. Boysie was an amazing teacher, and anyone who wanted to play jazz in Wilmington, DE would seek him out.

"So, when I was 20 (I am 55 now), I went to India to study tabla, the drums used in North Indian classical music. I had been a fan of Indian music since I was about 12, because my half brother gave me some Ravi Shankar records at that time. I was also interested in Persian classical music, gamelan, African, and many other kinds of what is now called 'world music.' I played some Indian music records for Matt, and he was really into it. I was also studying a lot of odd time signatures in many different kinds of music, and sometimes I wonder if his listening to Indian music is why sometimes, especially in his piano solo work, I hear many patterns in rhythms of five, seven nine, etc. I really don't know, and don't want to be simplistic about analyzing his music.

"What do I do? I am a musician specializing in hand drumming from around the world. I play in concerts, in pizza joints, do workshops in universities and Day of Percussion events for local Percussive Arts Society chapters, etc. I have a trio, with me on Middle-Eastern percussion, an oud player, and an oboe/English Horn player; a trio with a guitarist and saxophonist (we play Afro-Pop, funk, bossa nova, and other music from around the world); and I get hired by churches to play during their services.

"I have a mail order business called Percussionmusic.com, and I sell percussion instructional materials, (books, DVDs, CDs, sheet music)," Davidson concludes. "I used to run an entertainment agency, used to book music in a hall in Arden, DE, and am a musician; so those are reasons why Matt had me be his agent. We also have been friends for over 30 years, so we both have a mutual trust and respect for each other."

Matthew Shipp—MagnetismVenues Near and Far

Stuart Kestenbaum is among the varied and yet distinct array of people who have been involved in preparing some kind of performance event with Matthew Shipp. He combines his work as Director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts with his avocation as a poet in one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful settings anywhere, Deer Isle on Penobscot Bay, Maine.

"Matt's residency was a collaboration with Opera House Arts in Stonington as part its jazz festival," Kestenbaum says. "Each summer, Haystack invites one of the jazz musicians to be in residence during one of our two weeks. This provides an opportunity for our workshop participants and faculty to attend the concert, too. Our goal in having jazz musicians (and other visiting artists) is to create opportunities for people to experience varied approaches to the creative process. Musicians can experience how we work with craft materials, and we get to experience improvisation and rhythm in new ways.

"In addition to having afternoon discussions about jazz, Matt also gave a public talk and played music for our school community and island residents too. It provides a less formal environment than a concert. One highlight of his residency was the time he spent with the drawing workshop that session. His style of improvisation, and the improvisational drawing that the workshop undertook, was a wonderful match.

"From June through early September, Haystack offers intensive workshops for participants from throughout the US and abroad (last year we had students and teachers from 43 states and 17 countries). Our retreat setting provides an ideal location for an uninterrupted time to work. Students have to be at least 18 for these programs, and our oldest student this year is 89. They range in experience from beginners to advanced professionals. In addition to workshops in specific craft disciplines, we have increasingly become involved with more interdisciplinary work, through conferences and visiting artists.

"We offer programs of the same quality to our own community as well," says Kestenbaum, "including a three-day intensive residency for high school students from Deer Isle and the Blue Hill Peninsula, a mentor program for high school kids in the winter, and community-based residencies (most recently one with MacArthur award-winning choreographer Liz Lerman). Central to all our programs are investigating materials and creative process. We don't have a set curriculum—we want to encourage an open-ended exploration."

Max Micheliov provides a lucid summary of how a cottage scale music scene works in Vilnius, Lithuania, a metropolitan area roughly the size of Portland, Oregon. His discovery of Shipp's work began in a small retail record shop, Thelonious.

"It's difficult to say what year exactly it happened but our acquaintance started through Matt's recordings from '90s," says Micheliov. "Here and on I am going to refer to 'we' and 'us,' because my personal path into a music world of Mr. Shipp can't be separated from that of friends and colleagues, Valerij Anosov and Danas Mikailionis (music store Thelonious, No Business Records). At that time, Thelonious was my major supply of recorded music; also all three of us would meet up, listen and discuss the music quite regularly."

"Magnetism (Bleuregard, 1999), by Matthew Shipp, Rob Brown and William Parker, was among the first CDs I'd heard. Other brilliant works that instantly grabbed our attention and established Matthew Shipp among the most exciting modern pianists were his solo CD Symbol Systems (No More, 1995) and a trio with William Parker and Whit Dickey, Prism (HatHut, 2000). Also, duos with Joe Morris and Mat Maneri, released by hatOLOGY, were great, of course.

"One of my favorites is In Finland (Cadence, 2005), with Joe McPhee and Dominic Duval; that come out a bit later. It is interesting to mention that Matthew Shipp has become relatively known even outside a small circle of free improv fans. By 2004-05 he gained an unofficial status of "avant-garde star" after his recordings Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear, 2002), Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear, 2003) and Spring Heel Jack with Matthew Shipp (Thirsty Ear, 2003) were pirated," Micheliov asserts.

Thus, through basic supply chain failures, the first wave of recordings encountered over in Micheliov's corner of the old country were old-style physical bootlegs.

"Our first acquaintance with Matthew and William Parker happened through a New York jazz photographer, Peter Gannushkin." Micheliov explains. "Matthew has been our guest on two occasions; in 2005, he visited Vilnius for a duo performance with William Parker and, two years later, together with David S. Ware's quartet.

Joe McPhee In Finland"The audiences—I would say the 'audience,' because we see the same faces on all concerts of free improvised music—consists of mostly middle-aged people with a few exceptions. Some of the older concertgoers belong to a cohort of dedicated music fans and collectors, whose acquaintance with jazz music started long before the fall of the 'iron curtain.' Young faces are typically students of musical faculties.

"This is due to the fact that this music was little available and known during the Soviet times. For the first time, jazz outside a limited list of iconic names received a massive exposure to our audience in '90s, when the pirate CD market was thriving. This discovery aspect provoked a wave of interest that has declined since then due to market saturation.

"Even the example of Matthew's two appearances in Vilnius illustrates this general tendency. In 2005 the duo concert with William Parker still carried a strong aspect of novelty. That time it could be considered a very special event on the city concert map, and had the biggest attendance ever in our practice. I think we sold well over 200 tickets and had about 500 people in Vilnius Philharmonic.

"However, two years later, the David S Ware Quartet sold only 100 tickets, despite the event being well-advertised; we had three-meter tall posters in many city spots, and some print ads in major newspapers.

"This is how our vision of bringing up own audience was ruined, Micheliov concludes. "It never happened. Instead we have observed a decline of public interest, selling less tickets, show-after-show. The numbers have since stabilized, with about 100 sold tickets as top limit for us; though with guests and friends (if you want to do concerts you should have a lot of friends) we often have 200 people in the room."

The production team availed itself of whatever shoe string options were at hand and, in some ways, was more enthusiastic and imaginative than its counterparts I've observed, here in Boston. Nonetheless, there is generally a substantial effort input needed to obtain a modest output.

"We've tried various advertising schemes including large print posters on announcement posts in town center, banners stretched over the roads, articles in newspapers and online, of course email newsletters," says Micheliov. "We also explored advertising packages on television. Major TV channels offer massive discounts to cultural events. However, such discount packages still exceed our concert budget by several times.

Efforts to attain some sort of cooperative block-booking with other regional presenters have rarely yielded useful results.

"Speaking of collaboration," Micheliov says, "we have been interested in establishing local partnerships with other organizations and individuals. With very few exceptions, this has never worked. Schemes of collaboration seem to be more straightforward in a moneymaking project. But in a situation when neither party is going to benefit and there's a big chance that some funds will be lost, partnership is only possible between some truly likeminded individuals. Unfortunately, we do not have such close spiritual brothers locally.

"On a regional level, the idea has little potential for a bit different reason," Micheliov concludes. "Our concert life is too fragmented and irregular; available funds are barely sufficient for an event. Some sponsorship funds can be found at the very last moment. That's why nobody can afford and are willing to take additional risks of negotiating more events than they can manage directly."

Thus, we see a counterpart situation to status quo in the homeland. Oddly, Vilnius still is doing better audience numbers than Boston. And, as a silver lining in the attendance problem for the David S. Ware show, the recording became one of the best sellers in the No Business release roster.

Summed Up: A Hat Tip from Jim Steinblatt at ASCAP

All in all, it is a trying time hoeing a dolorous row. Much turns on waiting for bloated showbiz jazz to finish failing. The bloat fest circuit is running out of rock fossils to prop up the annual summer rounds of increasingly expensive and anachronistic monstrosities that no longer excite public imagination.

The basis for circulating recordings with a workable business model awaits some transformation of capacity and capability as yet unimagined. Shipp attempts to be proactive about strivings towards an honest restoration, and lends his time to ASCAP, where the outlines of any improvements are likely to rise first.

Jim Steinblatt graciously took time to describe Shipp's long and productive working relationship with the organization, which has included such honors as a working dinner session with Representative John Conyers, to raise awareness about artist rights.

"Matt Shipp is a titanically talented composer, pianist and bandleader," says Steinblatt. "I have been personally acquainted with him for at least 16 years, when the ASCAP switchboard operator transferred him to me in error. We spoke for a while and he sent me a copy of his Circular Temple (Infinite Zero, 1995) album, which opened up a whole new world of music for me.

"Since that time, Matt has become a very active member of ASCAP, which he first joined in 1992. He has performed in The ASCAP Foundation's genre-busting Through the Walls new music series at New York's Cutting Room. He was the first recipient of The ASCAP Foundation Jazz Vanguard Award, for his innovative approach to music. He has also been very generous to ASCAP with his time and energy. Matt has served, with distinction, for over a decade as a panelist on the ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards Competition, which honors the best writing on music."

"He has also been of great help representing the jazz music community to members of Congress, meeting frequently with key legislators. Several years ago, Matt represented ASCAP at the Future of Music Conference in Washington, DC, where he showed himself to be a steadfast supporter of music creators' rights at an event where anti-copyright sentiment was rampant."

"Matthew Shipp is a valuable ASCAP member," concludes Steinblatt, "and someone who understands very well that service to the music community serves his own interests, as well."

All-in-all, we have the outlines of tireless life's work amid diminishing returns. The coming near-term years should see it sort out, as the world blindly fumbles its way toward working transformations. Economies will find their equilibrium, prices and costs in these transformed terms will be discovered and effort will once more find productive channels.

Photo Credits

Page 1: Dave Kaufman

Pages 3, 4: John Sharpe

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