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In Their Own Words...Pat Mallinger and Cameron Pfiffner Talk Sabertooth!

Chicago saxophonists Pat Mallinger and Cameron Pfiffner have been co-leading the Sabertooth group at the legendary Green Mill Jazz Club every Saturday night (technically Sunday morning) for 25 years. During their weekly sets, which start at Midnight and end around 5am, Sabertooth offers a musical mixture of genres that draws the casual music fan, the late-night hipster, young jazzers and seasoned veterans to “The Mill.”

Given that Mallinger and Pfiffner come from opposite musical backgrounds and play the same instrument, it is unlikely that the two would ever have gotten together to start a jazz group, let alone that they would reach a silver anniversary. But they did. When the two first met at the Get Me High Lounge in the early 1990s, both Mallinger and Pfiffner had taken two completely different musical paths.

Mallinger, who was first introduced to jazz by his uncle Tommy Bauer, a professional jazz musician, and then later by his junior high band director, was taught through traditional instruction, while Pfiffner started off listening to his father’s record collection and learning tunes on his own.

Pat Mallinger & Cameron Pfiffner photo by Christine Jeffers

Mallinger majored in jazz studies at the University of North Texas and moved to Boston before finally settling in Chicago to pursue a career in jazz. Pfiffner majored in theater at Loyola University, performed in non-equity plays throughout Chicago, while continuing to hone his musical craft. When the two first performed together they quickly realized that they were able to create a sound that they both thought should be explored, and 25 years on the exploration continues. CJM caught up with Mallinger and Pfiffner to talk about their backgrounds, musical concepts and what has allowed Sabertooth continue to evolve over the years.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you first get exposed to jazz music?

Pat Mallinger: I’m pretty much a product of the schools. I grew up in West St. Paul, Minn., and went to Grass Junior High. We were eighth graders and we would go around and compete in jazz competitions with high schools from Minnesota and Wisconsin. I also had another musical motivating factor and that was my uncle Tommy Bauer, who was a well-known saxophone player from the Twin Cities area. He was actually indoctrinated into the Twin Cities Hall of Fame.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you came from a musical family?

Mallinger: Well, yes and no. I was one of five kids, and nobody in my immediate family was into music outside of a few siblings in choir. While growing up, Friday nights was my dad’s listening night. He’d sometimes listen to Nat King Cole, but it’d mostly be the Four Lads and that kind of stuff. I’d listen to that, but didn’t really get introduced to jazz until my seventh grade private saxophone teacher gave me three Cannonball Adderley albums. From that moment on I was drawn to Cannonball Adderley. I guess you could say I became a jazz snob in seventh grade. [laughs]

Chicago Jazz Magazine: In seventh grade?

Mallinger: Oh yeah. Then my neighbor across the street was a piano teacher. and she was into Dave Brubeck, so she dropped off a couple Dave Brubeck albums and I was immediately drawn to Paul Desmond. I remember in seventh grade I couldn’t wait to get back home to drop the needle and put on Paul Desmond and try playing along and emulate his sound. Around that time I took three lessons with my Uncle Tommy Bauer who had a big impact on me. He lived out on a farm in Wisconsin and I’d go spend the day with him. He’d tell me stories about his musical past, which I’ll never forget. He also taught me that sound was the most important thing. It’s the thing that identifies you as a musician and it’s the thing you need to work on. I’d listen to him very carefully and then listen to his vibrato. I remember I’d go back home and try to copy that vibrato thing.

Current members of Sabertooth: Pete Benson, Pat Mallinger, Cameron Pfiffner and Ted Sirota photo by Ken Carl

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Cameron, when did you get introduced to music?

Cameron Pfiffner: Oh, I’d say from the time I was born, practically. My father was a jazz piano player. He played kind of like Fats Waller in the stride piano style. He played professionally when he was younger, mostly with territory bands in Wisconsin. He was from Wisconsin originally. He played in the Minnesota area and, in fact, he played with one of the guys who you played with later Pat, Whoopee John.

Mallinger: Whoopee John! I played with Whoopee John. I did one gig with him. I put on the lederhosen, played clarinet and everything.

Pfiffner: My father, who was born in 1919, played professionally from the time as a teenager and then worked for the same guy that Pat ended up working for, decades later—very funny. He was a great piano player earlier in his life. By the time I was born, he had switched professions, but he continued to play. I guess you could say he had two professions: one as a visual artist and the other as a musician. Once he married and started raising kids, he stopped being a musician, but he would still play at parties. He still had jam sessions as well because he knew all the guys from the big band era. When they would come through Chicago they would come over to the house and party out! I used to just sit there and watch and listen to these guys blowing their brains out. It was just incredible. He had a big record collection that he started collecting in the thirties sometime, when he was a teenager. At one point—and I remember this very clearly—I was around 11 years old and he took me to the basement where he had his entire music collection. It was an 8-foot by 5-foot bookshelf full of 78 records. He said, “I’m not going to let you play any of the LPs because you’ll bust them. They’re very delicate. You can’t do anything to these clay records except drop them, so don’t drop them!” He showed me how to change the cartridge on the tone arm on the turntable so that it would play the 78 rpm records. I got into Bix Beiderbecke and Count Basie. Actually, I think my first favorite tenor player was Herschel Evans with Basie. I thought, Ah, that guy’s got it all together!

Most of the stuff I learned about music I learned listening to those records in my basement. I wasn’t as fortunate as Pat, because the band directors that I had were authoritarian, disciplinarian guys, especially the guy who was in charge of the high school band program that I tried to be a part of. I just hated his guts. He just loved the loudest, most obnoxious big band stuff. I was listening to Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Ellington and he just couldn’t stand that. We just didn’t get along at all. As a consequence, a lot of the things that were advantages to Pat—where he was inspired by his teacher and inspired to do the right things—I was inspired to do the wrong things. I was like, Oh! You say I have to practice this? Well, I hate what you think about music and I’m not gonna do it! It’s almost like Pat and I had directly opposite experiences. I ended up learning the hard way that I had to get a lot of rudiments together because I could go out and try and play with other people. Whereas Pat got all his rudiments together before he started playing with other people. That’s the interesting thing, and to some degree, it’s still kind of the difference between the two of us.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Obviously, Cameron was learning more on his own and you were at a school that was pushing you musically. It seems that from a very young age you were planning on being a musician.

Mallinger: It’s funny because at one point in seventh grade I wanted to be a dentist, but then in the latter part of seventh grade, I wanted to become a jazz musician. Something happened in that seventh grade. I came down to the junior high band room to hear Jazz Band 1. They all wore rugby shirts, and the rehearsals were packed with people. I heard the lead alto Jim Brown play “Feelings,” and it blew me away. I began to practice really hard that year and in eighth grade, I made the jazz band.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: I can’t imagine there were all that many students in eight grade listening to Cannonball and all of the other music you were consuming. Were you the best player in the jazz band at that point?

Mallinger: Well, I got most of the featured solos and I was winning awards. Pfiffner: I’ve heard some of those. You should ask him about those. His sound was completely professional.

Mallinger: I was fortunate to be in the company of many talented musicians in Jazz 1. I was neck and neck with a kid named Joe Thorton and a few other guys. This was in 1978 and Bob Klein, the band director, was the one who built up the jazz program and inspired us every day. He motivated us to practice like crazy. He also took us on field trips to Minneapolis to hear live music. I remember hearing Woody Herman’s band, Maynard Ferguson’s band, the Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin Big Band, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Eddie Berger and others. I can remember thinking, Wow! This is what I want to do.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: All of this was happening during your junior high years. What happened when you got to high school?

Mallinger: I think Sibley High School was a little bit of a let down because I was in such a strong program in junior high. Then, all of a sudden, there was an emphasis on marching band in high school so jazz wasn’t foremost. As a result, I believe I got distracted a bit.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you lost some focus because it wasn’t just straight jazz anymore?

Mallinger: Yeah, both the wind ensemble and jazz band on the other hand was well regarded and they played at a very high level. I was fortunate to be playing with great groups every day. There really wasn’t much for me to complain about as far as my music goes. I still practiced, but looking back I think that I shouldn’t have been goofing around as much as I did, and practicing more.

Pat Mallinger and owner of the Green Mill, Dave Jemilo photo by Ken Carl

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Cameron, what type of musical experience did you have in school?

Pfiffner: That’s where I had my first bad experience with organized, regimented music. I remember the first time that I decided that I wanted to play the saxophone. I had failed at piano because I didn’t like it, but my mother was forcing me to play an instrument. She said, “You’re going to pick an instrument and you’re going to play an instrument.” I said, “I don’t want to play an instrument.” She said, “Well, you’re going to, so pick one.” I couldn’t make up my mind and finally she said she was going to go to the band director and ask him. I was a junior in high school at the time and she said, “I’ll ask him what instrument he needs in the band, and you’ll play one of those.” She went and talked with him and came back with a whole list of instruments and the tenor sax was on the list. It just so happened that my father had a great record of Coleman Hawkins and he looked so boss on the cover! It was one of those classic under-the-nostril shots where he had his horn. Those huge nostrils and the cigarette between his fingers—he just looked cool. Back then I was an oddball, little nerdy kid, so the other kids were always picking on me. I said to myself, I bet nobody ever treated that guy that way! I want to play the tenor sax! That’s how I ended up with the tenor sax, but I still didn’t want to practice.

Cover photo by Christine Jeffers

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You just wanted to look cool with the sax but not have to practice?

Pfiffner: I don’t know what I wanted to do, but I do know that one night my mom gave me an ultimatum. She said, “We are not going to rent this horn anymore if you’re not interested in playing it.” I remembered that I liked this Count Basie record, and I thought, Well, why don’t I try and play along with that? Not the solos, but the particular theme that started the recording. I put it on and played it over and over again until I finally found all the notes. I finally played the thing and I ran upstairs to tell my parents I want to play this horn! It was very dramatic but it worked and they kept on renting the horn. It was like I finally found something that I wanted to hear myself play.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you play in the high school band?

Pfiffner: Yeah, I was in high school band, but at the lowest level cadet band. We all sucked. That’s just the way it was. However, during that time I did go and sit in at this place way out in Cary, Ill., called The Northwest Passage. They had a really great trio there, which had John Wright on piano, Corky Roberts on bass and Marshall Thompson on drums. Those guys were absolutely professional. Another guy and I would show up every week. They adopted us, you know? They weren’t harsh, but they were firm and made us learn tunes. If you got up there and did something that you weren’t supposed to be doing, they’d let you know immediately. They would also be very encouraging and I think encouragement got me into where I would practice and try to master certain things.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you go to college?

Pfiffner: Yes, I did, but not for music. I graduated with a theatre degree from Loyola University in 1982 or ‘83. After college I spent about eight years in the non-equity theater scene, and that precluded anything having to do with music because in non-equity theater, you rehearse at night because have to have a day job. Because of that, there’s no time to go hang out at jam sessions or play gigs. It was only after I quit the theater scene that I decided I wanted to spend more time on music. That’s when I got into the whole music scene. I started trying to find gigs with bands that weren’t going to kick my ass too hard. Luckily, I knew a lot of tunes by then, but of course, you learn the repertoire of the band you’re playing with. I worked with a guy named Bob Verne. He was a sweet guy, a drummer. He worked steady at the No Exit. A lot of interesting musicians played in that band. Jim Baker played in that band, Steve Hart and Rich Theodore, who was a bass clarinetist and a saxophonist. They all had leanings toward the outside of the spectrum, but Bob liked playing bebop, so that was a cool place to be. You could stretch and go in a lot of different directions with him.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Now Pat, didn’t you go to school at the University of North Texas for music?

Mallinger: I did go to the University of North Texas, but before I did that, I went to the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire for a year. I was the only performance major at the school and everyone else was in the music education program. Back then they had a strong music education program at the school and not much of a performance program at all. Now Eau Claire has a jazz studies program that they have built up and it’s pretty impressive. But at the time, I wasn’t getting enough direction in preforming jazz, which is what I wanted to do. I had several people—including Bob Klein, my junior high band director, and director of U of M bands Dr. Bencriscutto—took me aside and told me I should be looking into either Berklee or North Texas. So that’s when I started thinking about a change and began sending out audition tapes to different schools and North Texas accepted me.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you transferred from Wisconsin Eau Claire to North Texas, was it a complete change for you?

Mallinger: Yeah, it was a little overwhelming. There were 2000 jazz majors and 200 saxophone majors at North Texas during that time. I got there and was waiting to audition for a big band and there’s this battery of saxophone players warming up and you’re like “holy crap!” It can get intimidating, but I immediately connected with the right people, which really helped. I did get my degree from there, but what I got most from North Texas were the connections I made with other great musicians. We would hangout everyday, listening to recordings. I actually met Dan Trudell down there when I was in the Two O’clock band. We hit it off and Dan became one of my best friends. Hanging out with these guys was my best education I think.

Photo by Christine Jeffers

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Cameron, how did you and Pat end up meeting?

Pfiffner: I was playing a gig at the Get Me High Lounge that was sort of this underground, classic Chicago jazz club on Monterrey, right next to the viaduct. It was a hole-in-the-wall place where the stage was at the end of the bar and the bathrooms were on the stage. Basically, anyone who wanted to go to the bathroom would have to walk through the band. I was up there with the quartet, and I don’t remember who was on it, but Pat was there with Dan Trudell and we started talking at the end of a set. I invited him to come and guest star with me at another one of my gigs that I had at the time that was at the Jazz Bulls, which was in the basement of the Lincoln Park West. They had a lot of great jazz musicians pass through that club. At that time I had a band called Cameron Pfiffner and Friends. I asked Pat to come and play with me, and we both liked what we heard. That’s pretty much when we decided to put a group together. It was 26 or 27 years ago, so pretty much we’ve played, with some exceptions, every week together regularly for 26 years.

Mallinger: Very few exceptions.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you get the Green Mill gig?

Pfiffner: Pat and I were playing at the Get Me High and Dave Jemilo, the owner of the Green Mill, was there one night and heard us and liked the sound of the group. He wanted someone to run the jam session late on Saturday nights after the featured band had finished. What he basically said was, “You could play the first set of your music and then you can let guys sit in after that.” He also said we didn’t have to let anyone sit in if we didn’t want to feature them. Then he said in his typical voice [imitating Jemilo’s thick Chicago acccent}, “Of course, if Wynton Marsalis or somebody like that shows up, you know you might want to consider letting them sit in.” It’s funny, because we’ve actually been accused of not letting Wynton Marsalis sit in with us, even though he’s never shown up when we’ve been playing. I think there might have been a couple members of his band who have shown up at various times, but the story running around the town one night was that Wynton had shown up, and we had stiffed him.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So, in 1992 you guys started playing every Saturday night at the Green Mill from midnight until 5 a.m. How did you decide on the repertoire?

Pfiffner: We already had somewhat of a repertoire list that we had developed over the years. Both Pat and I had books of music that we liked to play and then we have been adding to it as we went along. Now we have a combined book with a lot of music, mostly original compositions but also transcribed things as well.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you guys first started, where you playing standards and things like that? And then the compositions started?

Pfiffner: When we first started, Pat had a strong Blue Note catalog book. He had the Wayne Shorter songbook, so we would play a lot of that because it’s groovy and it has two horn parts already written out. But then I brought in a bunch of weird stuff that I liked. Sometimes I’d bring in medieval music, tunes from Ethiopia or music that I’ve been listening to and I wanted to feel how it was to play it. Pat really got into the Grateful Dead, so he started transcribing a lot of things from the Grateful Dead. By the way, that’s our next album, Sabertooth Plays Dead.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Sabertooth has always played Grateful Dead music!

Pfiffner: Yeah, on both of our previous records, I think we’ve played at least one Dead tune but this is purely devoted to the music of the Grateful Dead. It’s kind of unusual for jazz musicians to play this type of music but that’s what gives us a lot of pleasure. The Green Mill is a tourist attraction that people have heard about from all across the globe. When they come to Chicago, and if they are at all interested in jazz or into Chicago history, they come there and it’s like they’re in a movie. It’s really late, so nobody’s expecting anything except to hang out and have a good time. You can hit them with a lot of stuff they’re not expecting, and they are kind of like, What in the world is that? I can’t believe we’re hearing a jazz band play Grateful Dead tunes. This is incredible

Mallinger: We also do the Beatles, Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and others. We’ve tried to expand to playing covers of all sorts of rock material—and funk—outside of the normal realm of jazz. And, yes, we have even played “Free Bird”!

Pfiffner: There’s a lot of people who come in there who don’t know anything about jazz, but when you hit them with that stuff it’s really cool. You usually get a great reaction. I have had people tell me, “I never liked jazz before, but I like it now.”

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How has performing with the same guys every Saturday night for 25 years helped to shape the sound of the band? Did you have a conscious thought process about the sound or did it happen organically?

Mallinger: It probably happened more organically.

Pfiffner: I would say so too. We certainly didn’t get in a room and discuss how we were going to deal with a specific tune. Most of the time, we’re meeting on the bandstand after a week of doing other stuff. Pat and I get together fairly often, but the whole band doesn’t get together all that often. We rely on Ted Sirota and Pete Benson to flesh the thing with the sheet music we give them. I think the main thing that everybody has learned is that you don’t throw one of your friends under the bus. If they play something that’s really wonky and doesn’t seem to fit with what’s going on, you don’t just throw up your hands and say, “I had nothing to do with that!” You can’t do that. It’s impossible. You have to go with it. The whole point is that the audience only knows what you allow them to know about how things are going. Sure, if you get into a really strange situation, it can sound very dissonant, but the audience doesn’t know it’s not supposed to sound that way unless you turn around and make it obvious. There are plenty of times we’re thinking things didn’t go well, but you can’t do that in the middle of a performance situation. I would say that because of our love and trust for one another and our camaraderie on the bandstand, we stand united. We try to give the audience something that they can value, and we try to give each other something that we can value together.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s really rare for a group of jazz musicians to actually play together in the same band for a regular basis. Of course there’s a handful of touring groups, but even they rotate guys in and out when they are in different cities sometimes.

Mallinger: Yeah, Pete Benson (B-3 organ player) has been with us for 15 years and he’s the newest guy. Our drummer Ted Sirota has been with us for 23 years, so we have all been playing together for a long time!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: OK, here’s the obligatory question. Where did the name Sabertooth come from?

Pfiffner: It came about because of how jazz musicians call each other “cats.” I thought, what’s the biggest baddest cat? It’s the Sabertooth cat. Plus, at the time that we started this band, we were like, Oh jazz is fossilized. The idea that the jazz cat is almost extinct was part of it. Now we know that that’s not true, but we had to go through a period where jazz was at the bottom of the list of music that people wanted to hear. When I was coming up through high school and college, it was around that time that Wynton Marsalis made the big splash with his boundary hopping between European classical music and jazz. He got a lot of press for that, and then he began to push for going back to the swinging forms of jazz and not playing fusion anymore. He became pretty rabid about that, as I remember. At the time that we were doing this band, we were like, Oh jazz cats are fossilized! Anyway, that was my thinking on that.

Mallinger: But there’s another reason we decided upon a band name. When we began performing at the Jazz Bulls, the group was called Cameron Pfiffner and Friends. So when we started playing at The Green Mill, Emily, Dave Jemilo’s mother who passed over a couple decades ago, was assisting with business stuff for the club. Emily was billing us as Cameron Pfiffner and Friends, and later it became the Cameron Pfiffner Ensemble. I called her up one time and said, “Can we get my name on there, too?” And she’d say, “Oh yeah. Who are you?” Somehow she knew Cameron, but she didn’t really know me. I said, “Pat Mallinger, I’m the other guy.” Then it became Cameron Pfiffner/Pat Mallinger Ensemble. We talked and thought, Cameron Pfiffner/Pat Mallinger Quintet—that’s too much. Then Cameron came up with the idea of a new band name. I was like, “Yes, please, anything.” He came up with Sabertooth, and I thought, Bam! Okay, great, perfect. Then it was billed for a while as Sabertooth Jazz Quintet. So when we ditched the bass and switched to organ, it became the Sabertooth Organ Quartet. However, then people would tell us they thought the band consisted of four organs by the name on the bill. I remember calling Dave, kind of awkwardly, and asking him if we could shed everything but Sabertooth? He agreed and we became Sabertooth. And there it is.

Cameron Pfiffner and Pat Mallinger holding up a cake celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sabertooth at the Green Mill. Photo by Ken Carl

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You just brought up a great point. The Mill is an anomaly. It’s a jazz club that attracts people in their twenties all the way up to 100 years old. They come there sometimes for the music and sometimes for the vibe. If the music appeals to them, does it really matter if it is called “jazz”?

Mallinger: One of my favorite parts of the gig are all the positive response we get throughout the night. It’s an amazing inspiration for me. I’ll hear, “Wow, I’ve never heard jazz before, you guys are awesome. I’m coming back.” I love hearing that. That’s the most basic I hear. It’s encouraging too, because we are reaching an audience that wouldn’t typically walk into a jazz club. Now, suddenly they like jazz, and they come back and hear us. A lot of our fans have been coming in and hearing us play since the early ‘90s. We have developed a really devoted and diverse fan base.

Pfiffner: The jazz thing you’re talking about—the nomenclature of jazz—that’s interesting because it’s now joined the ranks of respectable concert music. It’s a concert music and there’s a repertory music. That’s one of the things that Wynton did for the music. This is a repertoire. Here’s the Blue Note repertoire, here’s the Ellington repertoire, here’s the Basie repertoire, all these things. Now there are, what I call, jazz taxidermy, where they mount the great jazz master in a lifelike position and that’s part of what the music is about now. So people go and see those concerts, and this is the way that so-and-so played it in 1953 or whatever. I don’t know about the term jazz. A lot of great musicians didn’t like the term, right? I like the term because there’s no other word like it. It’s the “J” with the “Zs.” It’s pretty cool. I like the way it looks and I like the way it sounds, and I don’t care if it means copulation. That’s okay with me but it does raise the question: do you want to keep calling this jazz because it has improvisation in it? Rock ‘n’ roll has a lot of improvisation too, along with a lot of different music. I grew up listening to the swinging jazz of the thirties, forties and fifties, and that’s how I ended up getting involved in the music.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What do you have coming up?

Mallinger: We have two projects in the works. One that we haven’t started is going to be all an all-original recording. The one we are in the midst of doing right now is, as Cameron mentioned, Sabertooth Plays Dead. It’s interesting because it was such a fun session and I said to Cameron, “Yeah, that was so different. I really appreciated what was happening, and now going back and listening to it. I really like what I’m hearing.” He said, “Well, it’s not really jazz. It’s more like a jam band.” He’s right. It is kind of like a jam band! I was referring to how it’s different from the traditional format of jazz. Many years ago I became interested in moving from the predictability of that structure; the lead solos, another front line solos, piano solos, bass solos, drum solos, and then the band takes the melody out. I wanted to break away from that mold. I think in Sabertooth we’re allowing ourselves to explore that. The possibility of segueing between tunes and whatever might happen. That gives us the space that breeds other great things.

Pfiffner: Ted’s the master of percussion. He knows so many different grooves from so many different places in the world that it makes it really fun to play, and you can do, really, whatever you want with the music. Although sometimes Ted has to put his foot down and say, “That is not appropriate for that tune. We are not going to play it that way.”

Chicago Jazz Magazine: With a new recording coming out in the spring, and this being your 25th anniversary year, how far ahead are you looking to keep this gig going?

Mallinger: I remember just prior to our 10-year anniversary, it was awkward because Dan Trudell was just leaving the band. I recall talking to Dave Jemilo about doing a 10-year celebration, but we had a different organ player all of a sudden and we didn’t get on it quickly enough. I said, “It doesn’t look like we’re gonna have the 10-year celebration.” Dave said, “We’ll look forward to the 20th.” We laughed and I never thought in my widest dreams we’d make it to our 20th, and now we are at our 25th. So I think at this point, if we can keep going to our 26th year, that’d be great.


Listen to the full feature interview on the "Talking Jazz with Mike Jeffers" Podcast

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