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Roxy Coss: Standing Out


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I think jazz is so important. The whole idea of it is the best of what our culture could represent. It’s the best of democracy, and America, and diversity, everybody having a voice.
—Roxy Coss
All About Jazz: You have recently released a new CD, Chasing the Unicorn (Posi-Tone, 2017), just a year after the release of Restless Idealism (Origin, 2016). Albums are like a snapshot of a timeframe, how has that musical image changed in a year?

Roxy Coss: More back story is it was recorded more than a year apart, even though they were released a year apart, so there was actually more time between recordings, almost two years. When I worked with Jeremy Pelt, he taught me a lot about the industry. His release schedule is every year, and I saw that really work for him, so that's my goal right now, to continue now that I have the momentum going. From my experience, I've seen how important it is to keep getting contact out there, regardless of what it is. The more stuff you put out there, the more chances of someone hearing you.

What changed is I started a working band. Restless Idealism was more people I was playing with a lot at Smoke for years, that being Chris Pattishall and Alex Wintz. We didn't really have a consistent bassist and drummer for that band. I had been on the road with Jeremy, and with Willie Jones. Willie was like a hero for me when I moved to New York. Dezron Douglas was on that tour as well. I had played with Willie and Dezron together, so I wanted them on the record. That was that record, we never played anywhere together as a band, ever.

Once I recorded that, I realized I wanted more of a consistent band, to be able to work on stuff to get a sound. Every time I performed, I was rehearsing a new set of band members, so you can only get so deep with the music. As good as they are, if you want to try out different things compositionally, it's hard when you're teaching the music each time to new people.

I got a new residency in 2016 at Club Bonafide. For that, I tried to commit to a band lineup, trying out a bunch of different drummers and different bass players. This is the band I ended up with for Chasing the Unicorn. We played at Newport together, we recorded together, and did a bunch of gigs in the fall. So I felt like for the first time, I had a band. They were all younger musicians, maybe a little less known. For me, musically, it allowed me more freedom to try things out. I was trying things out in a different way.

AAJ: You mentioned having different drummers and bass players. When soloing, isn't the bass and percussion ultimately what you're listening to?

RC: Yes. It's also about reading. I like to do interesting things, so I need them to be able to read quickly and accurately what I'm writing. I write in a lot of different styles. I need the drummer, and the bassist as well to understand my influences pretty well, which are very diverse. Jimmy McBride on drums is the most fluent reader, and is very well versed.

AAJ: And very young as well.

RC: Yes. Also what is great with Jimmy, I feel like he's growing with me. Every time we play, he brings something new, more to it, more energy, he's growing into himself feeling more comfortable to really try things in the band, which is cool.

AAJ: Your quintet set up has guitar replacing trumpet on your past two records. What inspired this particular lineup?

RC: I had a quintet with trumpet for a couple years. On my first self released record Kate Miller was playing trumpet. When I was younger, we had a residency at a restaurant in my neighborhood, we would play every Monday. So I had that sound when I started writing. When I had the Smoke residency, I hadn't played my music in awhile, as I had been touring with Jeremy Pelt. At first, I was just doing quartet standards for a long time. Then I thought, 'Why don't I use this to try to come up with a concept.'

At the time, Kate had moved out of town, and there weren't any young trumpet players that I was playing with. So I thought to myself that if I'm not using trumpet, what do I want to do? I was really listening to a lot of Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Mark Turner stuff at that time, and I thought that could be cool. I was playing a lot of gigs with Alex Wintz, with a different band leader, so we were friends, and I really liked his playing. I thought. 'Why don't I just try this and see what happens?' I really liked the freedom it gave me to either double the melody, counter melodies, or textural, two chordal instruments playing at once. There's more flexibility there.

Another thing about the trumpet. When you have a trumpet-tenor front line, it really implies a certain thing. It has a nostalgia to it, which is great. But I think that the guitar created more freedom for me in terms of what people are going to attach and associate with the sound.

AAJ: So you're saying that with a trumpet-tenor front line, people are going to look at the trumpet player as the leader?

RC: That's another part of it. Just that sound is more of a classic, it's more sentimental for people. It's reminiscent of a time past, and I wanted to think of the future, what is the future sound, where the music is going. I'm so influenced by that sound, I didn't want it to box me in to stay there. I wanted to see where I can go. The personality thing too, most trumpet players are very dominant personalities. To find a trumpet player who isn't going to try to lead my band would be a challenge (laughter).

AAJ: Talk about your current projects you're working on, whether on stage, or in the studio.

RC: I just recorded my next album, another one with Posi-Tone with the same band, except the piano player is Miki Yamanaka. Mostly my originals, so that will come out in early 2018. That's the main thing.

I just played with Rufus Reid's Big Band last weekend, that's a new project for him. I met Rufus in 2011, at the Ravinia Program. He was my ensemble coach , so he mentored me there. Last year I ran into him again, I was doing a big band, The New York Jazzharmonic. They had commissioned him to write a piece for the big band, and so he heard me play that piece. He was putting this thing together for Dizzy's, so that was incredible.

AAJ: You come from a very creative family, including your mother, the prominent artist, Mary Coss. Talk about these roots, and how they impacted your path to jazz, and the saxophone.

RC: Both of my parents are actually artists, they both have masters in fine arts degrees, so they met through that world. The family culture on both sides of my family is very creative and arts based. My Dad's family is very musical, my Dad is one of six. My grandmother sang and played piano and organ in church, she always took credit for my musical career. She used to watch me when I was a baby, and got me doing pots and pans and all that stuff. When I was in kindergarten we had music class, I went to Graham Hill Elementary. Cherrie Adams was my music teacher, we had keyboards, and she could tune into each kid. She went to my parents and said 'Roxy is really playing some interesting stuff on piano, maybe you should consider getting her some private lessons.'

My parents signed me up with a piano teacher in town, Nan Beth Walton. She teaches the Pace Method, which is very cool. It's very theory based, and ear training based, composition based. We would do two lessons a week, one was a partner lesson, and one was a group lesson. We did all these games, learning key signatures, music theory, ear training exercises, transcribing. We had to enter composition contests, so we had to learn how to write down our compositions. She would help us use the music notation software.

Just to add about my family, I think the stars aligned in that I had a musical family background, an artistic background, amazing programs, and a feminist family. When I was fifteen I went to Essentially Ellington for the first time, went to New York, fell in love, and was the first time that I thought that I'm going to do this professionally. When I told my Dad, he told me that he had known for a long time. My parents would not limit me in something that I was clearly passionate about, and could be extremely successful at. So he saw it at a young age, and my parents gave me opportunities. They sent me to Centrum, to Stanford, to the UW workshop, got me private lessons

AAJ: What was your age then?

RC: I started when I was six or seven. I had an understanding of music at a really young age through that. My parents saw that I was really passionate about it, so I started saxophone in fourth grade.

AAJ: How did you choose the saxophone specifically?

RC: They didn't actually hand us instruments specifically, they just presented us with choices, and asked us what are our first, second and third choices were. My parents are extremely feminist and progressive.They were very open minded gender wise. Saxophone was my first choice, flute the second and drums the third. I think beyond that, your instrument kind of finds you. I did try the flute, my mom had played the flute in college, so we had one around the house. I played piano. My Dad plays bass and guitar. Any of those could have ended up being my instrument. But I started alto, and went to Washington Middle School with Mr. (Robert) Knatt. He took one look at me and said, 'You need to play the tenor, you're tall.' I was really tall. I tried it once and knew it was my instrument. It felt different in a way I had never felt.

AAJ: Was there an artist, or an album that blew your mind early or that drew you to jazz?

RC: My Dad listened to Coltrane and Miles when I was in elementary school, and I would say to him, ' I hate that, turn it off, what is that weird stuff?' It wasn't until I was in Middle School playing in jazz band that I started to understand it. Mr. Knatt would tell us to check out albums. My Dad would take me to the record store and buy me certain CD's. My first loves were John Coltrane's Bluetrane (Blue Note, 1958), and Cannonball Adderly's Something Else (Blue Note, 1958). So Coltrane and Cannonball. Miles Davis' Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 1961), Art Blakey's Moanin' (Blue Note, 1958). I was really into that whole era.

AAJ: I still am!

RC: Me too, it's still my favorite.

AAJ: Your family environment helped you traverse a lot of the obstacles that led to you finding your creative self, and becoming a professional artist.

RC: Yes. My mom is a professional visual artist, I saw that freelance artist life as an option, and thought, ' Of course I can make a living doing this." My mom was reading a book when I was in high school, "Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow." That mantra was something I believed because I saw it. When you're a kid, you believe what you hear.

AAJ: You are a composer and improviser. What to you is the value artistically of the two, and how they intertwine conceptually for you when you write?

RC: When I write, I usually sit at the piano, and start with a small seed of an idea. It might actually be something I'm hearing, or I might have a conception I'm trying to get out. I might be thinking that I want to write something where I'm playing a melody with the bass, I might be thinking about a certain time signature or tonality. It sort of writes itself. I try to get out of my own way and let it come out. It's like a puzzle or a story. Once I play the first idea, I think of what has to come next, and I wait for that. Once that starts to take shape in a real song, the form dictates what you're saying. Some things, I'll write the chords, and then it needs a melody. Some things I'll write thinking it's just a blowing section. Certain things demand compositional structure. Sometimes I'll write something thinking it's the tune, and it ends up being the introduction. Sometimes I'll even get rid of the introduction, but it led me to the tune.

AAJ: Your work is very original, yet rooted deeply in the masters that have preceded you. What has the path entailed to find your original voice, after years of learning from, and emulating your mentors?

RC: On the one hand, I think that you are, no matter how hard you try, going to sound like yourself. The deeper you go, the more you sound like yourself. I've had a very strong idea of what I want to sound like, ever since I picked up the horn. It's just been a matter of making it happen. I know that sounds weird. I almost feel like everyone else is finally hearing what I've been hearing the whole time. When I was twelve, I heard myself as I sound now. To try to translate that to other people has been a life journey that I've been working on, that I'm sure will continue until I die.

I tell my students that the more you transcribe and listen to other people, you can actually begin to pick out the individual factors, the tone, the articulation, the style, the time feel, the equipment, or whatever. Even the compositional sounds that you're using. So the more you practice, the more you study and listen, the easier it will be to get to your sound. You have tools to choose from. If I transcribed and learned how to sound like Rich Perry, and I hear that sound in the middle of a song, I can access that tool and speak it. It's like vocabulary words. the more vocabulary you have, the more clearly you express yourself.

AAJ: Live performance is an interaction between performer and listener, listening being an active, rather than passive act. How do you see the relationship between the musician and listener on a given evening, and how might it impact your performance?

RC: I think that one goal and challenge for me as a performer is to actually have it influence me less. When I was twelve, I played in front of thousands of people at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. When you have that as a starting point, and you end up in a club in Manhattan with three people in the audience, I might think, 'What have I done?' You have to not let it get to you because if you did, I think you would quit. It's a constant challenge to not care what people think. I might have a performance and think the audience was not into my music, and have people come up to me and tell me it was incredible. Touring has taught me there are different cultures. You might play somewhere where people are cheering loudly, where somewhere else they may be silent. They just don't know jazz culture. You just have to put out that you don't care what anybody thinks, that you're the best. This was a big theme for me with Restless Idealism, going between the ego of being your best so you can get to your concept and get it out, versus thinking you suck and have to go back and work on things. That being said, you can't help feeling more energy when there is an audience that you feel is right with you.

For me the best example of my everyday life is Small's. The Small's audience is very ahead. It's always packed, they're interested, that's why they're there. They have a certain understanding of jazz. They have focus. Jazz is a music you have to be actively listening to, when you have an audience that is actively listening, it gives you more adrenaline, and more willingness to take risks. This can lead to better performances.

AAJ: Often at a club like Tula's, in the introduction, we mention the etiquette of keeping table conversation to a polite minimum during the performance, because, as you said, some folks are just not familiar with jazz culture. You tell them, and they get it, they listen, there is more listening energy in the room. When people are all in, it impacts the music in a positive way. People are paying a cover to listen to the music. If someone's conversation is impacting that experience in a negative way, it's unfortunate, even if it's unconscious. The patron doesn't pay a cover to hear your conversation. It's a matter of respect and manners, consideration for others. It's not always about you. But it is incumbent upon the venue to make that etiquette known politely and positively.

RC: I wish audiences would realize that what they give, they will get back. If you're a good audience member, you're going to get a better performance. One thing I try to learn from playing with Jeremy Pelt, or Rufus Reid, people I look up to, is that they demand a certain energy and respect from an audience. When I would play Smoke, the audience would just be talking, and disrespectful. I would question what I was doing, because when I played with Rufus, he would demand that respect. You have to learn how to demand that respect. It's a sensitive thing. Dizzy's, for example, is a horrible room in that most of the people are tourists, they don't know jazz etiquette, they talk, which is shocking for that location.

AAJ: They don't set up the room during introductions from the stage?

RC: No.

AAJ: That's both surprising and disappointing.

RC: Almost everything I've done there, or been to there, the people are talking. When I'm in the audience there, I typically have to ask people to please be quiet. But when I played with Rufus, it was silent. So he's doing something that is requiring that.

AAJ: You were commissioned by the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company in 2009 to write a full score for a 35-minute dance piece, Tribe. Had you at that point collaborated much with artists dedicated to other art forms aside from music?

RC: He was my upstairs neighbor, and heard me practicing all the time. Before I moved in, he had lived in that building ten years, and he had dance rehearsals in his apartment. He had started his own company. When I moved in, I was very young, and he was hearing me practice and wanted to encourage me, but also he was inspired by what he was hearing, when he created "Tribe."

So he suggested we work together on this thing, and so that was definitely the first project like that I had done. I haven't worked with dancers other than him. We did that and another called "Breaking." It was less structured, more a free improv based on a structure. At the time, I was considering going into film composing. I was just out of school, trying to figure out how to do this as a living, and I was pretty dark about jazz and the jazz scene at the time. It was sort of an experiment at that time into that sort of composition.

AAJ: You studied at William Paterson University in New Jersey, with baritone saxophone master, Gary Smulyan. Gary is a dues paid musician, who learned through traditional jazz mentorship outside of academia. How was your experience with him as a mentor within the framework of academia?

RC: His technique was to throw you into the fire. For better or worse, it was like, 'Do this!' I would ask how and he would say, 'Just do it.' He would give me ten tunes to learn and tell me to just do it when I would ask him how to do it. I would come back and tell him I had learned them and he would say, 'Ok, learn ten more.' In certain ways it was frustrating, because I didn't know what I was doing, but the idea of just doing was making me learn, which was great. If you're uncomfortable, you learn, that's when you grow. It really pushed me.

AAJ: Jazz instrumentalists are historically and currently overwhelmingly male. Talk about your experience as a woman jazz instrumentalist, and how you see the possibility of gender equity in the future.

RC: Women need more opportunities, so I am a firm believer in affirmative action. In this case it has to apply to women musicians in jazz. Men have to make an effort to hire women in their bands, even if there might be a slight better choice on an instrument for a man. It sounds bad, and a lot of women would disagree with me, there is so much pride involved. The problem is, women will never be as good as men if they don't have the opportunities that men have. You learn on the bandstand, and if you're not on the bandstand, you're never going to grow as much. That's part of it. In the professional world, men need to make a commitment.

Before that happens, men have to understand why, and I don't think many men understand what the music is lacking, that the music could be better. The music would be more successful, more people would want to hear it. It would be a better situation.

AAJ: It's half the population.

RC: Yes! If men could understand that, I would think they would want to make the effort. People are selfish, let's be honest, if they saw a benefit for themselves, then they would want to. It's just a matter of them of having them see those benefits. In the meantime, women need to stand up for themselves, and just work hard and be active. I just started a women in jazz organization in New York. I think most women in jazz don't realize that they're not alone. There's an overwhelming feeling that you're alone because you grow up all alone, you're the only woman in sight. When I first started finding women on gigs, it was such an incredible and powerful experience to connect with them. To be on a gig with another woman is such a different experience. When you start to exchange experiences, you realize that you've had the same experiences. I'm not alone, I'm not crazy. Psychologically, if you think that you're the only one experiencing something, you think you're crazy. When you realize it's not you, it's powerful. It gives you sanity and allows you to have energy to make music, instead of all the other stuff you have to deal with.

I see tons of girls in jazz programs that just end up quitting, this has been a very pervasive problem over time. For young girls to see mentors is super important. I'm trying to make sure that the women who are on the scene now, the young women continue and feel a support network. Eventually, start to connect us with young girls, because it has to start from a young age.

Partly it's educating men and women educators, because a lot of them that mean well, don't know how to implement a safe and productive environment for girls. It's a societal problem, not just in jazz. Our language, the terminology we choose to use. We refer to women as girls, we refer to girls as ladies. That term refers to ladies in waiting, concubines, and implies ownership by a man. There's all these little subtle things. that refer to women as a conquest. Everything we use to refer to girls and women objectified them sexually, and vandalizes them from a young age. It tells them that they're not important, you're ignored, forgotten. I'm trying to counter all of that.

A lot of times if I go into a school, and do workshops and clinics, best case scenario the director is aware of the value I'm giving to the young girls. I try tell them it's not just that, the boys need to see a strong woman too. If they don't see a strong woman, they don't think women can be strong leaders. Until it's just accepted that women are part of the scene for the kids, they're not going to change. We mimic what we see as kids, in our parents, gender roles, but also as jazz mentors, the boys need to see women as role models too.

AAJ: Justice in terms of gender equity has been easier in classical music because it's so institutionalized. They can conduct blind auditions. It is a matter of adjusting methodology. The Seattle Symphony went from 7% woman in 1970, to nearly 50% by 1980, exposing the injustice of the past, and the caliber of women musicians in the present. They even have the musicians remove their shoes, as to not tip off their gender. It's not so easy in jazz, a more social music that is not institutionalized professionally for the most part. It makes sense that we can make the most headway in the education community, school programs, workshops, JazzEd, community projects.

RC: It's like flipping the script. A problem we have now, especially with this President, is widespread thinking of white men thinking things are being taken from them. Men have told me that I just got a gig because I'm a woman, and I have to tell them that no, I got the gig despite the fact that I am a woman.

AAJ: I confess, I caused a bit of a ruckus one night at a local jam session, when a young man, a musician, made a remark about two women jazz musicians that I had recently reviewed and interviewed. His remark in essence stated that they only have attained their current successful status because they have 'pretty faces.' I was offended and let him know my feelings in no uncertain terms, unfortunate in that I briefly disturbed the music. As a father of daughters, and a grandfather of granddaughters, I really am at my wits end with this sort of flagrant bias. It has no place in our world, specifically in this case, in a music that in every other way is currently and historically socially progressive.

RC: I get that the most from peers and younger, it's frustrating. You want to think younger people are more progressive. I'm sure older people say those things too. If you've reached a certain amount of success in your playing, you know what it takes and you see the results. He's jealous of my success.

AAJ: That's very plain, yes.

RC: It's like privilege. He thinks that it's owed him. There's this amount of entitlement that I think a lot of men have, because their whole life they've been told that they deserve that. They don't understand what I, and all women have to go through is more than they've had to go through, to get where we are.

AAJ: Ingrid Jensen is someone I really admire, as a strong, top tier trumpet player. She's amazing and a great role model.

RC: And she's enough older that she really had to deal with stuff. There is not very many women her age doing it. She's one of the first pioneers. She was on the Rufus Reid gig with me, and we talked.

I have some mentorship from Anne Drummond. In that same time period when I was graduating, I was thinking I was going to quit. I had a lot of challenging things happening. I just thought, 'Why don't I just take a lesson with Ingrid?' She's a woman that's actually doing what I want to do. She was amazing. We had a great lesson, she hooked me up with Kate Miller the trumpet player, and she just explained to me that if I just keep playing, she promises everything will be allright. Just keep the instrument in my mouth at all times. Just the idea that there's no secret. I didn't get it until years later, that I started looking around at people that didn't quit. The people that were still on the scene that I was admiring, the people that were successful, who were older than me, the only trick is that they didn't quit. They just kept going, no matter what happened to them. Next day, keep going, back at it.

I think that connection, I don't know if it's because of the academic studying, but there is definitely a disconnect with me in a context with men, versus me going to Ingrid, where she can just talk to me. There's not this extra weird stuff. I imagine that's what most guys get with their mentorships. I've had a ton of male mentors, they're all great guys, they've all offered me a lot. There's just something weird there. To have that connection with Ingrid was so great.

After the gig, Ingrid gave me this big hug, because I had told here what it meant to me, that I was going to quit before I talked to her. She told me it was so amazing to sit behind me and watch me play, that I was her first successful mentorship. 'Just to know you were about to quit and now you're this rock star,' she told me. She was very emotional about it.

AAJ: So much has to change in the hearts and minds of men. Men need to call out other men who continue to deny women justice in all aspects of our society, in our communities. Jazz music can only be the instrument of true free expression that it alleges to be, if everyone is included. We must embrace change as a positive and liberating movement in this regard.

RC: One thing that stands out for me after meeting all these other women is we all have had a very similar experience. Almost everyone I have talked to have been sexually abused, harassed, or assaulted from male jazz mentors at some point. A lot of us have multiple instances of that. It can be anything from extremely overt like rape, to just very subtle ways of manipulating power over you.

A lot of us don't realize until we are older how that affected us. There's so much anxiety that gets created. We end up being the ones that stop ourselves in the end. The saddest part is, after you've been treated that way, you internalize it. When you're a kid, you don't know what's going on. It really takes the strongest of the strong to get through that, then learn what happened and reframe it. Realize what it did to you, then change yourself out of those patterns to become functional again.

There's so much abuse in the community, and it's encouraged. These men who have been successful touring expect that. When a woman comes into that environment as a musician, they expect to treat them like they treat women everywhere. It's misogyny, and abuse, but we're part of the community. It's institutionalized. What's happening now is a lot of people are coming forward in the media.

AAJ: You have released two recordings over the past two years. Various factors, including streaming services biting into CD and download sales have made profitability a difficult task in releasing an album. Streaming services are paying artists very little for their work. What has been your approach to releasing your work in the current environment?

RC: The first album I released I made the most money from because I did not use a label. Even though the quality is not as good, I recorded it at home, it makes me more money still than the other two combined.

I lost so much money on Restless Idealism. These days, CD's are an investment in your career. My friend Nick Finzer says they're advertising cost. I went all in on it, and I said this is an investment, let's see what happens, and it worked. It made an impression with people. I realized something about the industry when I did that, which is that almost every single person that you see that is a star, successful, is paying for that success. Not that they don't deserve it musically, but the ones you're seeing are being seen because they're paying money to be seen. That was a little frustrating to realize, but if that's what it takes, that's what it is. Now I know at least.

Once you have momentum, other people do more work for you. Once you become known for certain things, having played for Jeremy Pelt helped, people had a context for who I was, and he was on the record. It's a strange thing. We need for writers, publications and radio people to find a way to work more together with artists. Like, this is great.

AAJ: Yes, it's all about community, that's why we're here. The music should inspire us to work together.

RC: We will help each other. I appreciate that, a lot of people don't understand that. You want this too, it's the same concept as between men and women, we need to help each other here.

So yes, I lost a lot of money. Posi-Tone is a different structure, less cost to the artist out of pocket. They pay for a lot, but they own it. You don't make as much from selling CD's, but you don't go out of pocket as much. So the expense is much less, which is what is affording me to release more regularly now, which is great. My hope is just that with each release, it reaches more people, the profile is raised, it allows me to do more.

AAJ: We have to figure out a way for streaming services to pay the artist appropriately. Nobody wants to hear it, but the market dictates the behavior. People aren't going to pay musicians based on principal. That's not how capitalism works. Four major companies created a corporate monopoly of the world's music, and left the artist on the outside begging for crumbs.

RC: The steaming thing is frustrating, because if I don't provide it, then people do it illegally. If you do provide it, you can at least see what's going on. I don't have a choice with the labels what I provide. My first CD I did through CD Baby for distribution, so every once in awhile, I'll get $10, which is amazing after all this time. But it shows me Spotify, two cents, Rhapsody, four cents, If it sells on iTunes, I'll get a check.

People will actually come up to me and ask where they can stream my album. I look at them and think, 'How disrespectful, I don't think you know what you're saying right now. You don't have to say anything, but don't say that.'

AAJ: Younger people don't know any other way. They assume music is free. It amazes me people will spend $5 on a cup of coffee that is gone in fifteen minutes, but not $1 on a song they can have forever.

RC: Embarrassingly, Lucas and I have been trying out Apple Music recently, for $15 a month, we can listen to whatever we want,which is amazing for a musician.



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