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Bud Shank: Escape to Freedom

The Jazz World has had to endured too many fallen heroes recently, so rather than post another obituary upon the passing of Bud Shank, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles decided that Bud's recent passing on April 2nd would serve as an occasion to celebrate his life with this wonderful essay about him by Gene Lees that appears in Waiting for Dizzy: Fourteen Jazz Portraits [New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000]. © copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"No doubt every biography of an artist, from Rembrandt to Gauguin, from Beethoven to Miles Davis, has tried to relate the subject's character to his art. The connection is implicit in the term "self-expression." It is assumed that the subtlest choice of colors or tones is an expression of the inner self, that everything the artist does reveals him as surely as his handwriting. In general this is true.

The expression of personality is far more obvious in jazz players than it is in "classical" musicians, although they too are capable of the imposition of self on a traditional repertoire. It has been said that Toscanini conducted Beethoven as if it were Verdi. And Glenn Gould so infused his work with his own character that he drove people to polar extremes of adulation and fury. There are those who loathed Glenn's approach to Mozart and Beethoven. I found it all interesting, because Glenn was distinctly odd and offered fresh views of everything he did, whether it was "correct" or not.

Jazz playing, however, is a creative art, as opposed to an interpretive art, and therefore acute individuality is not only tolerated, it is expected. To be sure, this freedom is compromised by those who would politicize the art and insist that this approach or that is the truth faith -- what Paul Desmond called McCarthyism in jazz. It would make for a tidy equation if we could say that this folly is restricted to critics, but some of the musicians have been equally culpable. In general, however, musicians and critics alike have looked on jazz as, and to it for, individual expression. If you're familiar with his playing, you can identify Benny Carter in about one bar. Nobody in the world phrases like him, no one inflects notes the way he does, no one has that urbane, gentle, aristocratic tone.

But there are mysteries in jazz. One of them is Bud Shank. In general, jazz musicians find their styles early and, while their art may evolve within that style, stay with them. There are exceptions. The evolution in his fifties of the Montreal pianist Oliver Jones has been startling. And Dizzy Gillespie's tone changed when he altered his embouchure a few years ago. There is early Gillespie and recent Gillespie, and they are different. And although he does not, by his own statement, have the physical stamina, the capacity to bum at full throttle for hours on end, that he once had, his powers of invention and his fattened, burnished tone keep him one of the soaringly inventive, one of the half dozen most creative artists, jazz ever produced.

No jazz musician's work has changed as conspicuously as that of Bud Shank. It was reasonable to speculate that the change occurred because he gave up life working in the recording studios of Los Angeles, moved to the state of Washington, and went on the road again to play jazz, and only jazz. But that is only part of the explanation, and the change in Bud's playing is one of the most interesting examples of the relationship of personality to art that I have come across.

Bud was for many years a fixture of West Coast jazz-a somewhat imprecise term used with condescension if not contempt by those East Coast critics and musicians who believe that the purpose of art, jazz in particular, is political polemic. As such, Bud became a focus of hostility, the handsome and successful white studio player with his swimming pool, sports cars, and sailboats. His playing was pretty and lyrical but, according to the eastern orthodoxy, it lacked balls. The trappings of success, however, concealed a tortured spirit.

There was indeed a softness about his playing in the old days, a tentative quality. But no one -- at least no one with open ears would today characterize Shank's playing as tentative. On the contrary, it has a kind of ferocity about it now, and you hear tales told with a chuckle about musicians going into concerts or recording sessions expecting to dominate him and coming out of them with their asses kicked.

This change has manifested itself in his saxophone playing, not in his flute work. It is not yet generally known that a man who was considered one of the premier flutists in jazz has given the instrument up entirely. Nor is it known that Shank's standards for the instrument were so high that he despised his own playing. He hasn't played the instrument at all in several years. Bud has put aside the flute forever to concentrate on the saxophone, and only one of the saxophones at that. He no longer plays baritone. He plays only alto. And he is opposed to doubling.

Bud and his petite blonde wife Lynn stopped off to spend a couple of days with my wife and me in Ojai when he was traveling down the coast to a gig in Long Beach, California. I have known Bud about thirty years, but never as well as I do now after those days of conversation. Indeed, now I wonder how well I -- or any of us, really-ever knew him at all.

One of the first things we discussed was his abandonment of the flute. Bud said, "Giving up the flute came after a great deal of thought, when I decided to make a break for it out of the studios. It was a long drawn-out decision. I had really concentrated on the flute, and I really practiced. I used to go over on my boat to Catalina Island for two weeks at a time just to practice the flute. I was really getting more and more into the classical thing and learning how to play it, realizing that the reason I was bugged with my jazz on the flute was because I really couldn't play the damn instrument.

"I knew I could not play the flute as well as I play the saxophone, so it was a matter of finding out how I'd feel really learning the instrument. I spent a couple of years doing a really concentrated thing. I did some recitals. Bill Mays wrote a suite for me for flute and piano, we made an album in 1980.

"All the stuff I did with the LA. Four was mainly based around the flute instead of the saxophone. Finally I reached the point around 1984 or 1985 when I said, 'This is not what I want to do. I want to be a saxophone player and I always wanted to be a saxophone player.' I was not getting very far either. Even though I was becoming better and better and better on the flute, it was still, as far as playing jazz music is concerned, not making any sense to me. It was still not what I could do on the saxophone.

"So I took a long look at my life and what I had to do. I was in the position that I could say I'm here because I want to be and I'm doing what I want to do. And as long as I'm doing what I want to do, lets find out what I really want to do. And what I really wanted to do was to be a saxophone player. I look through my life back to the very beginning and that's all I ever really wanted to be, a good saxophone player. So I saw that the problem with the saxophone was really the flute, because the flute was taking all the practice time."

I asked Bud if there was a problem of embouchure, or was he talking about something much deeper-the very conception of playing. He said, "Flute will not bother the saxophone playing, but a lot of saxophone playing can bother the flute, at least until you get to the point where you are so strong that nothing is going to bother you. And that's just a matter of practice time and that's what I was doing. I could play saxophone all night and still pick up the flute and play one of those little classical things. I had gotten myself to that point. But the satisfaction wasn't there. It was called, So what? The satisfaction I'm getting now from my saxophone playing is total and complete. But I was trying to be two persons.

"I am a Gemini and I'm double enough things as it is, but I could not master two instruments. It's physically impossible. Nobody's done it yet. I was trying to and didn't make it, and I think I was adding to the insult to flute playing. Most other people who are trying to play both are also insulting the instrument.

"I don't know what it's going to take to produce jazz on the flute at the level I want to hear it. Maybe there is some kid out there somewhere who has dedicated his life to the flute and done nothing but play the flute. That's what it's going to take to make the breakthrough and make it make sense. Hubert Laws is getting closer. But Hubert spent a lot of time playing the saxophone too. Finally threw away the saxophone, as I've thrown away the flute, and concentrated on flute. Hubert is close to doing it. Dave Valentine is close, but the guy to me who is the closest is Steve Kujala. He worked with Chick Corea. He stays around L.A. and does some studio work, but he is a bitch on the flute and I see more promise in him than anybody. He grew up more in the fusion world than the straight-ahead jazz world. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's going to take someone like that, maybe another generation.

"Doublers ain't going to make it. There isn't enough time. You can be a master of the doublers but you're not going to be a master of anything else. That also goes for the writer-players, or arranger-players. Dave Grusin has gone on playing, but I'm sure Grusin doesn't think of himself as a master pianist. He is a great piano player but he is not a master. But he sure is a master writer. Even now I don't know of anybody who is a great writer and a great player. People try, we all try, I tried, but I had to go back at the age of fifty-eight and practice the saxophone again like a teenager. Actually I've enjoyed it-as much as you can enjoy practicing."

Art Farmer's experience, I said, seemed to verify Bud's position. Art got from the flugelhorn the sound he wanted, and after years of playing two instruments, he finally gave up the trumpet, at least for public performance. I named several other musicians who doubled instruments, or indeed, played more than two of them Jack Zaza in Toronto, who plays studio sessions on seemingly any instrument whatever, and Don Thompson, who records on bass, piano, and vibes.

Bud said: "Look at Bobby Enevoldsen. He was a clarinetist with the Salt Lake Symphony, but he's most known as a valve trombone player. And back in the 1950s most of his jobs were playing bass.

With his talents, he should have been one of the heavyweights in this art form. But it's because of that thing where people say, 'He's a great bass player ... No, no he's a great trombone player.' You get into that thing with the categories, people don't know what to do with you, they can't handle it. People who are your market, your audience, can't handle all that. This new kid from Australia, James Morrison, trombone player and a trumpet player, he's something else on both those instruments. The one that kept up playing and writing most of all is Roger Kellaway, But he plays now all the time. He didn't when he was in Hollywood."

The next question was about Bud's years of studio work. He was one of the most successful players in Hollywood. He said,

"I didn't stop playing. I was just not able to improvise all the time, there wasn't any place to do it. My ears had deteriorated, what I could hear. After just doing studio work. I have pretty good pitch and I'm able to hear things, but from not using them all those years, my ears started to deteriorate. Now that I'm playing all the time, they are better than they ever were. Even though they are supposed to deteriorate with age, mine haven't.

"I was not playing much jazz for ten years, not improvising, just playing in the studios. Who cares in the studio as long as you're in tune? Not using your hearing from an improvisational standpoint, that's what all the guys face coming out of the studios, the loss of their ears. This has never happened before where jazz musicians were forced to-or chose to-go into another form of the business, and then come back out as jazz musicians past the age of fifty, fifty-five. This is a unique situation in history. All of a sudden there's a chance to be a jazz musician again, there's a market out there, and a chance to record. You're not going to make as much money as you did in the studios. But I got out of the jazz world and into the studios not because I wanted to but because there was no place to play. And I came back to jazz music because things have turned around the other way.

"There was nowhere to work in the early '60s. Some guys went to Europe, some guys went off into never-never land with some form of chemical assistance and avoided facing reality. In my case, I ended up doing studio work because that was what was going to pay the rent. But as soon as I saw a spark out there, I left. Same thing with Ray Brown.

"We saw that spark in 1975 when we put that L.A. Four group together. We did it very cautiously, we even had a very cautious sound. We were one classical musician, Laurindo Almeida, and three jazz musicians, myself, Ray, and Shelly Manne. Theoretically that can't work. To a certain extent we made it work, and it is amazing that we were able to keep it together as long as we did. We had to do a lot of give and take so we would not get too hot for the audience. The instrumentation made the drummer really lay back. A drummer could have pushed a flute and guitar almost into silence. So that automatically gave the group a light sound.

"We broke up the L.A. Four in 1984. My wife Lynn and I already had our house up north in 1980. That's the time I stopped doing studio work, weaning myself away from it in the middle '70s. I would maybe fly down to Los Angeles to do a movie call or something. It happened so gradually I can't put a time on it except when I made the decision in 1983 that I did not want to participate in the L.A. Four any more. That's when I decided that I really wanted to be a jazz musician. The L.A. Four group was almost like being in the studios.

"I got my first clarinet when I was ten and my first saxophone when I was twelve and I knew I was going to be a professional musician some way or another. My love was the sax, even though clarinet was my major instrument up through college. That stopped as soon as I left, after three years. The clarinet never came out of the case again unless someone made me take it out.

"The most important band for me was at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, when I was a student, Johnny Satterfield's band. I started playing with that band in high school. It was a marvelous band, those guys are the ones that really made a musician out of me. Then I went to L.A. and was struggling around, doing the usual parking cars and cleaning houses and all that.

"I got a job with Charlie Barnet at the end of 1946. That was the first big-time band I went with. I was with Barnet in '47, '48, then went back to L.A. in '49. 1 stayed in L.A., worked with a small band Al Viola had.

"That's when I met all the guys from Kenton's band. They were in L.A. also. When Stan put that Innovations in Modem Music band together, they recommended me for the job, and I had my only audition of my whole life. I got the job! Stan needed a saxophone player who could play the flute. I had just started with the instrument, so I had to bullshit my way through it. I guess I got the gig cause he couldn't find anyone else. I had and still have a lot of respect for Stan. He really encouraged the guys in the band to do whatever their thing was. I was hired to be lead alto player, not to be a soloist. That was Art Pepper's job. Whatever your position in that band, Stan encouraged you to do your thing.

"But that band was too clumsy to swing-because of the instrumentation and the voicings. On the other hand the sounds that came out of it were really big noises, really impressive. That's what that band was all about, making these really big noises. As far as swinging, it never did swing. Maybe it wasn't supposed to, I don't know. There sure were some players in it who swung.

"The Contemporary Concepts album, with those Bill Holman arrangements-that's one of the best big-band albums I've ever heard, I really enjoy listening to that album. That's probably as good as Stan ever got. I feel bad that I was not around then, I was long gone from the band by the time that album was made. That was some marvelous writing and some pretty good playing.

"I left Stan," Bud said, "because I got drafted. He kept me out of the army for two years. I had been 4F since I was eighteen because of my eye problem. When I became twenty-four and the Korean war was under way, they decided they were going to take me anyway. Stan's office kept me out up until January of 1953. Then I got drafted into the Marines, of all things, and they said, 'We don't want you in here, we don't want any one-eyed people in the Marine Corps. Get the hell out of here."'

I was slightly startled by this bit of information, so casually communicated. I wasn't sure I'd heard Bud correctly. What was this about one-eyed?

"They discharged me," Bud continued. "I went home and turned twenty-five and then nobody could touch me any more.

"My military career! Six weeks, it took them six weeks to straighten it out. Which is ironic because my father is career army and my brother went straight out of college into the navy and here's old Bud being a saxophone player who did not want no part of none of that shit.

"So, that's how I got out of Stan Kenton's band, went to L.A., went back with Charlie Barnet for a couple of months and then I wanted to stay around L.A. for a while, and I started working with an R&B band that played jitterbug. That was one of the best things that happened to me. I always wanted to be a soloist and with Stan's band I never got the chance. I was the first alto player, so getting to be a soloist never happened, I was held back. By now I was twenty-six years old. I got this job with this jitterbug band playing tenor. We worked five nights a week around town. Every night there was a different jitterbug concert around. George Redman was the name of the band. Maynard Ferguson and Bill Perkins and a lot of other people played in that band. I started bringing in my friends, but the rhythm section always stayed the same, it was always horrible. I just went on honking, and it got rid of some of my inhibitions.

"Then an opening came up at the Lighthouse with Howard Rumsey's band. I started with them in '53, and I left in January of 1956 to form my own band, recording for Dick Bock and World Pacific. That's when Laurindo Almeida and I made that first Brazilian album. I keep hearing that story that we started bossa nova with that album. That's bullshit.

"If bossa nova is a combination of Brazilian folk melodies and jazz music, then maybe. But there are a lot more elements involved than that. The rhythmic parts of what we were doing on that first album had hardly any relation to the samba. A couple of the tunes were baions that were somewhat related but the melodies were most certainly melodies that Laurindo remembered and brought up from Brazil with him. Maybe that album might possibly have helped in the evolution of bossa nova, but I'm not even sure about that. Those guys were quite capable of evolving what they did without the help of Laurindo or anything else. Those early albums were good and there were some valid things that came out of them. But we most certainly did not invent bossa nova, by any strange twist of the definition.

"I worked with my own quartet starting in 1946, with Claude Williamson, Don Prell, and Chuck Flores. Did a lot of tours around the U.S. and Europe, back and forth, back and forth. Then in '60 1 started to stay in Los Angeles more. By this time Gary Peacock was working with me a lot.

"I formed another group in 1961 with Gary Peacock, Dennis Budimir, and various drummers, an endless flow of drummers. We worked at a club out in Malibu called Drift Inn for a few years. Then it sort of petered out and then the studio years began."

Bud and I were far into our conversations when suddenly, unexpectedly, the explanation of his life came out. If you remember what Bud looked like in his twenties, when he came out of the Kenton band, you have an image of a tall, notably handsome young man who seemed to have it all. He didn't see it that way. Born Clifford Edward Shank, Jr., May 27, 1926, in Dayton, Ohio, he had grown up convinced of his own ugliness.

"When you said you wanted to write this," he said, "I thought, 'What the hell does he want to write about me for? Hell, I've never done anything. I'm middle class, Midwest, middle everything.' I'm finding out what I sound like and who I am, and what I am, and I like what I'm finding in here. Not that I'm satisfied with it, but I'm liking what I find inside me. Down inside there all those years of practicing in the woodshed to find the facility to get it out at last.

"You see, I was born cross-eyed. And I lived with that all my life. When that isn't corrected, the brain compensates. It will not accept two visual signals that it cannot co-ordinate. It shuts one of them off. The weaker eye goes blind. I went blind in one eye early in my life.

"I was cross-eyed till 1976, when I was fifty. I went to an ophthalmologist because I had developed glaucoma. If you catch glaucoma early, it can be treated with drugs. But while I was seeing this man about that problem, he said, 'You know, I can straighten that eye by surgery. It's not going to help your vision, you still won't be able to see out of it. But it will stay straight.' I didn't know what to do about it.

"I went off to Catalina for a couple of weeks and thought about it, because it would be such a change, and there would be surgery. I came back and said, 'Okay, lets straighten it."'

I said, "You know, Bud, all these years I've known you, I had no idea you were cross-eyed."

"No, you sure didn't, because I had ways of concealing it, and that was part of my problem.

"We went ahead and did the surgery, and it changed me all around. I had confidence I didn't know I could ever acquire that came from down inside me somewhere. All of a sudden I could look at people and talk to people where before I was always looking with my head down.

"And I played like that, I had always played as if I was walking around with my head down.

"I hope I'm still a lyrical player but I hope I'm playing with a lot of confidence and with a lot of strength and conviction. All those things I didn't have before. I was following other people, and following what they expected of me. And now I don't give a shit. If you don't like what I do, that's tough, 'cause I feel like I'm doing it right and doing it good.

"It didn't happen overnight. It has come about over the last ten years. It really changed my life around. I gave me the courage to get to where I am now, to get rid of the flute and get to this plateau of my playing. I was always a follower, following somebody else around, following what the West Coast sound was all about, you know, like a little sheep.

"This thing of being myself didn't happen till I was nearly sixty years old. There has never been a real me, and now there is a real me. I think I was always a good player in spite of the inhibition. But it was never a zap! I'll go this way. I was waiting for somebody else to go and then okay I'll go this way too. I don't feel this way at all any more.

"I'm involved with just being a jazz musician and improviser, and creative in my own way. The funny part is that I'm having more depressing moments than ever before. I didn't realize it until I read that article you did in the Jazzletter about Emily Remler, and you were talking about depression as a part of the creative process, and all of a sudden I realized I was having some really down periods. I could talk my way out of them but I was having them, and this was something I did not have when I was a studio sausage, with no ups and downs. I started to get bugged at these things happening.

"When you're a studio musician, they don't want you to be individual. That's how I got into sailboat racing. I didn't care about that music, just play it and take the money, and racing was my creative release.

"But since I stopped being a studio sausage, I care about what I'm playing and sometimes I'm up about it and sometimes I'm not."

Bud and I talked about the exodus of great musicians from Los Angeles, especially those who were involved in studio work, either as composers or players. With the rise of the synthesizers and one keyboard film music, such as the dreadful moaning that passes for music in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, a great many brilliant musicians have paused to re-examine their lives. J. J. Johnson, Roger Kellaway, and Benny Golson, all have given up writing music for films and television. Or else they were ignored as yuppie producers raised on rock went after swoosh-moan-and-ululate. Whichever the reason, they went back to playing, and all three are playing better than ever before in their lives, because they have applied all the years of experience in composition to playing, and have rebuilt their chops. J. J. had doubts as he built up his chops for a return to playing, but they were groundless, and his playing has passed beyond brilliance now into grandeur. His playing now is awesome. Golson too had doubts, and he said it took two years for him to rebuild his saxophone chops. The labor was worth it: he too has exceeded himself.

Ray Brown has checked out of the studios, as has his longtime crony and partner guitarist Herb Ellis. Many of these people have left Los Angeles. Ellis now lives in Arkansas, Kellaway in New York. J. J. Johnson moved back to his home town, Indianapolis. Meantime, there is a growing jazz community in the Pacific Northwest. Dave Frishberg and Bill Hood now live in Portland, Oregon. And Bud Shank lives in the little fishing town of Port Townsend, Washington, with the Strait of Juan de Fuca before him and the great jagged blue wall of the Olympic Mountains at his back.

"We discovered Port Townsend," Bud said, "when I went to play in Seattle in a club called Parnell's and the piano player was a guy named Barney McClure. Barney told me about this little town he lived in, which was Port Townsend, and it fascinated me the way he described it. Lynn and I had been looking for an alternative place to live since 1975 and had been spending some time in Maui, in fact we had a condo there. Not a place to live permanently, just an alternative to L.A. Then that too got crowded and we looked for somewhere else.

"Two years later I went back to Seattle and learned that Barney McClure had been elected mayor of Port Townsend. Bebop piano player becomes mayor, right? In 1979 Barney was involved with a very small jazz festival and a one-day workshop they were having. He invited the L.A. Four to play there. I fell in love with it. Came home and told Lynn; Barney invited us back next year and Lynn came with me and we bought a house there in 1980.

"Barney's story was he had come up from L.A. with a bass player and drummer in the car, ripped out of their nuts, hippies, Barney with a beard and an earring. They got to Olympia and went the wrong way and ended up in Port Townsend. Barney decided to stay there.

"Port Townsend at that time had been abandoned by the regulars and had been taken over by the hippies. A lot of kids from Berkeley had come up and found paradise and beautiful old empty houses. Meanwhile the establishment had rediscovered Port Townsend and the hippies were out on the street again. There was terrible conflict and Barney ran for mayor and won. He opened a music store and became very successful. The ex-Berkeley kids opened all the restaurants and art galleries, and the Establishment from Seattle came in and restored the old homes.

"Barney became more and more involved with politics and the Democratic party started grooming him for the governorship. And all this time he is playing piano every night-and he's a damn good piano player. He decided not to run for governor. He was a member of the state legislature. Eventually we may have our first bebop heavyweight politician. I think he has a very bright future in politics and he really is a great pianist.

"I sort of inherited this little festival in Port Townsend, run by something called the Centrum Foundation, funded by state, federal, and private donations. The foundation also does a chamber music week. There's a week for writers, and a week for poets, and a week for the Seattle Symphony workshop, a folk music week, a bluegrass week, and a jazz workshop and festival.

"What I like about the Pacific Northwest is the weather, the freshness of it all. It's a very inspiring place to live. There are a lot of artists and arts-minded-people-arts-conscious versus money conscious."

I asked Bud where he'd met Lynn. He said,

"I think my first wife introduced us in L.A. in the mid-'50s. Strangely enough it was through my other hobby, which is sports cars, racing Formula One cars. I used to go to sports car races and Lynn's first husband was a sports-car driver and that's where our paths crossed. My first wife went off into a film career. We got divorced, and Lynn and I got married in 1957 and we've been at it ever since. We don't have any children, by either marriage. Not by choice, it just happened that way."

I suggested to Bud that a new situation has arisen in jazz, the return to the art of its old masters, men such as J. J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis-and Bud Shank. There is always much talk about the new young talents. What about the return of the old masters? It is bound to have an effect. Bud said,

"There are more opportunities in jazz now than there ever was before, certainly more than in the '60s. The clubs come and the clubs go, but the records are selling fairly well right now and there are a lot more small record companies out there, there are more opportunities. At least there are for me. There are a lot of festivals, but I don't do a lot of them. Most of the festival operators still think I'm a studio sausage, but I'm working on that. It's just a fact that there are places to play and there weren't for so long.

"I see a lot of younger audiences and that's really healthy, and I'm not talking about college tours. When you book into clubs, I'm really amazed at the younger audiences. I'm pleased and I think it's really healthy. There is a great number of jazz camps around in the summer. There may be a hundred students at each one and maybe one of those will become a star. What you have left is ninety-nine jazz fans out of each camp, and not all of them will become great players but they will have an appreciation of jazz and they will go their way and have careers and get married and then for each one you'll have two people with an appreciation of jazz, and on it goes. I think this is the only way to perpetuate this thing. "

Bud Shank remains very handsome, but the prettiness is gone. He now has a beard which, like his thick head of straight hair, is gray. He is full of maturity and good sense and he looks a little like a mountain man.

At the end of the two days, he and Lynn got into their car to leave. We were sorry to see them go. We waved good-bye to them from the driveway.

I'll never view him the same way again. I'd been hearing him differently for some time, and now I knew why."

 


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