05/3 December 2005 - March 2006
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A Fresh Take from 1929: OKLAHOMA STOMP mx. E-31372-off.

by Steven Lasker

DEMS 05/3-59

An exotic new discovery/acquistion: A single-sided 10-inch shellac test pressing of Oklahoma Stomp by The Six Jolly Jesters, recorded 29oct29 that bears the matrix number "E-31372-off." It is a fresh take, different from takes A (first released 1Feb30 on Vocalion 1449) and B (first released 25Aug83 on MCA MCA-1374). For reasons that will be apparent, the take suffix "off." is likely an abbreviation for "office master," or "office take."
As I noted in DEMS 03/3 (page 9): "Files for Brunswick-Vocalion-Melotone Records 1923-31 are split between Vivendi-MCA and Sony; I believe I've examined all that survive. One crucial ledger book, which documented sessions by The Jungle Band and The Six Jolly Jesters between 1Mar29 and 27oct30, is long lost but a report (found at Rutgers), prepared by Gene Williams of Decca Records in 1944 when that ledger still existed, details the range of masters and takes recorded by The Jungle Band and The Six Jolly Jesters during the period through 1931." Williams noted the various takes that were assigned letter suffixes, but omitted details of office takes, which information might have been noted in the now-lost New York ledger for 1929-30. This data is found in the (surviving) New York ledger for 1931, for example on the ledger sheet for Rockin' Chair mx. E35800 (recorded 14Jan31), a reproduction of which will be found in DEMS 00/3 on page 23 and to which the reader is referred. [The ledger sheet is again reproduced here]

Note that on the ledger sheet's line for "Number of Masters" one reads: "1A & 1B + office." On other lines, one finds: "Waxes Cut: 5; Waxes Ship: 2" and "ship wax masters to Long Island." From these clues I suppose that the wax masters of the various A and B takes were carefully packed into a trunk at Brunswick's offices and studio at 799 Seventh Avenue (at 52nd Street in Manhattan) and then shipped to the company's Long Island plating and pressing factory. The wax masters of office takes aren't shown as shipped, from which I gather they were plated in the office itself--a 1934 inventory of furnishings at 799 Seventh Avenue references a "galvano" (or metal-plating) room there--and the resultant metal masters sent for pressing either to the Long Island plant or to an even closer plating and pressing facility that Brunswick maintained at 619 W. 54th Street in Manhattan, near 11th Avenue.
What purpose(s) did office take test pressings serve? As my review of the various surviving company ledgers and files provided no authoritative answer, I can only speculate. My guess: Brunswick's Long Island factory was cautiously slow in processing the A and B take metal parts and producing an initial small batch of test pressings, while the office takes were plated and test-pressed rapidly to enable snap decision on basic performance and audio quality. Office take tests might have been used to inform those charged with deciding which titles to couple on what issues, a special concern when coupling "odd selections" by different artists. As the office take of Oklahoma Stomp contains at least one bonafide fluff--washboard player Bruce Johnson intrudes into Ellington's first solo piano passage, realizes his mistake, and beats an embarrased retreat all in the course of a single bar of music--it clearly wasn't intended as a third-choice take suitable for use should both A and B takes fail in plating; such a take would be designated as take C and would likely be fluff-free.
A December 1931 inventory of Brunswick's master parts doesn't include any masters suffixed "off.," and no parts that fit this description are found in the vaults of Universal-Vivendi Music today. From these observations, it would seem that the metal masters of the office takes were used to press a tiny quantity of test pressings and then melted down.
Brunswick's New York ledger for 1931 indicates that office masters were occasionally made of Brunswick's commercial titles. For example, office masters were ordered made of all three titles recorded by Ellington's band on 14Jan31, but no office masters were ordered of the three titles the band recorded on 20Jan31, nor of the two titles they recorded in Chicago on 11Aug31.
I know of just one other surviving Brunswick office take test pressing, that being a program of no jazz interest transcribed at Brunswick for later radio broadcast and held today by collector John Newton. Given the extreme rarity of Brunswick office take test pressings today, I imagine that the vast majority were destroyed--reground, perhaps?--as a matter of company policy. How the office take test pressing of Oklahoma Stomp happened to escape Brunswick's office in 1929 is a mystery.
In August 2005, I acquired the office take test of Oklahoma Stomp from the English collector Mark Berresford in exchange for an N- copy of Gennett 5184 (Snake Rag by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band). Mark told me that he purchased the test (which looks VV- but plays much better, perhaps EE-) in the summer of 2004 along with many other Ellington 78s from the estate of Bill Worth, a recently-deceased resident of London. Mark has no idea where Worth obtained the test, and adds that, alas, no other shellac tests of similar vintage were found in Worth's collection. So much for provenance.
The test is unlabelled. In the central area where a label is normally found, hand-inscribed notations are visible on the surface of the shellac, as originally etched in the wax master by the engineer at the time of recording. The etched title reads "Oklahoma Stuff" [sic]; "#3" is etched to the left of the center hole, identifying the master as one recorded in New York's room #3 (see endnote 1); "15M" is etched to the right of the hole, indicating the title was originally intended for issue in the Vocalion 15000 series. (The first-choice performance, take A, was issued in the Vocalion 1000 series, however.) Below the center hole are the etched notations "Six Jolly Jesters" and "E-31372-off." Except for take suffix, the wax inscriptions visible on the "B" take and the "off." take are identical.
Digression: Inasmuch as ten men are heard on Oklahoma Stomp--while at least seven men are heard on Six or Seven Times, and eight on Goin' Nuts--"The Six Jolly Jesters" would seem a numerically inaccurate description for this group of jesters (each and every one of whom sounds jolly, at least to these ears). As for the origin of the happy-go-lucky pseudonym--and the inevitable question: "what were they thinking?"--I was startled to find the following, on page 12 of the 27Nov27 [New York] Morning Telegraph:


The Six Jolly Jesters, a blackface organization who were formerly featured with one of the Music Box shows, have been booked for vaudeville and expect to have a New York showing at an early date. The booking for the act was arranged by Jack McNevin.

Thus, for what it's worth, it's at least possible that the pseudonym "The Six Jolly Jesters" was inspired by a blackface troupe. Egads!

Endnote #1: I have only just figured out that the number which Brunswick's New York recording engineers in the years 1928-31 etched just to the left of the center hole on each master wax (always a #1, #2 or #3; I have never seen a number higher than #3 in this position) corresponds to the room number where it was recorded at Brunswick's New York office at 799 Seventh Avenue. (There were three recording rooms at that address, all on the top floor.)
Because Brunswick's New York 1929-30 recording ledger(s) disappeared long ago (except for a few ledger sheets from early '29 and late '30), I thought we'd never be able to determine the recording room numbers for that period (except for the session of 8Jan29, which was recorded in room #2 according to the ledger sheet which in this case survives) but this new discovery enables me to report that not only was The Six Jolly Jesters session of 29oct29 recorded in room #3, so were the Jungle Band's sessions of 20Mar30, and 22Apr30, while the session of 10Dec29 was recorded in room #2.
I don't know the room numbers for the sessions of 1Mar29, 29Jul29, 13Sep29 (Bill Robinson), 13Sep29 (The Jungle Band, recording in a different room), 25oct29, 21Feb30, 17oct30 and 30oct30. These numbers might be found on test pressings or certain flush-label master-pressed European issues. 78 collectors are asked to check their holdings and report any findings.

Endnote #2: I can't recall any mention of office takes in the Brunswick ledgers for 1932 thru 1940, but the sheets for Ellington's session of 2Feb32 disclose that waxes of B11200A, -B and -C Moon Over Dixie, also those of B11204A It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing) and B11204A and -B Swanee Rhapsody were sent to Scranton for processing (i.e., A.R.C.'s pressing plant at the former "Scranton Button Works") while the waxes of B11200D, B11204B and B11205C were sent to 54th Street. I infer from this that the latter batch of waxes were used to produce metal masters from which tests were pressed that were basically office takes in all but name. There was apparently some urgency to quickly release Brunswick 6265. It was released in San Francisco on 18Feb32, the day before the band opened a three-week engagement at that city's Orpheum Theatre. (Brunswick 6265 was released nationally on 24Mar32.) The first proposed coupling, Blue Tune (recorded 4Feb32) with Rose Room (recorded 9Feb32) was rejected in favor of another: It Don't Mean a Thing (recorded 2Feb32) with Rose Room (recorded 9Feb32). Thus, only nine days elapsed from the date Rose Room was recorded and the side's release in San Francisco; I've seen quite a few release dates of Ellington records for a variety of labels, but can't recall any other issue by Ellington that was released with such rapid dispatch.

Steven Lasker, 26oct05