by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As greater Los Angeles grew dramatically during the early 1920s, so did the worlds of art, culture and entertainment. The musical world of the region was starting to get some attention, whether it was in the classical realm, with, for example, a greater level of support for the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra or the popular world, where a dance band like Abe Lyman and His California Orchestra. Less well known was that there was a small, but growing, scene with a new form of music that would receive greater attention as the decade went on: jazz.
Although jazz is considered to have originated from New Orleans and then moved to other American cities, most notably Chicago and New York, it is not commonly known that Los Angeles developed its own jazz scene by 1920. As an excellent web article by Floyd Levin noted (see here), bandleader Reb Spikes came from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 1918, as many blacks were heading to this area at the time, and opened a record store on Central Avenue at 17th Street, which was then where the city’s growing black community lived. Spikes also had a club (the Dreamland) and and an amusement park (the Wayside) as part of his entertainment enterprises.
Spikes told Levin that he brought famed pianist Jelly Roll Morton to Los Angeles to work as a musical director at the Wayside facility and Morton hired trombonist Kid Ory and His Creole (also known as Sunshine) Orchestra to come out from New Orleans and perform. Spikes also stated to Levin that, because his record store did so well, including catering to white Hollywood celebrities looking for “dirty records,” and he seemed to refer to material from such legendary blues singers as Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith, who were mentioned in that context. According to the entrepreneur, the move to local recording was next.
Enter Arne Andrae Nordskog, a native of Story City, Iowa north of Des Moines. Born in September 1885, Nordskog was the son of Sivert, a butcher, and Bertha Johansson, who migrated from Norway six years before their son’s birth. He remained in Iowa until the first part of the 20th century when he relocated to Seattle, where he lived with his wife Daisy Lockwood and a young daughter and where Nordskog was working as a telephone company electrician. However, Nordskog was also a fine tenor singer and Levin noted that he sang for the Seattle Grand Opera Company.
By World War I, the Nordskogs, including Arne’s parents, migrated to Los Angeles, where Arne was the chief cable clerk for the Southern California Telephone Company and he and his family (including four children) resided in Santa Monica, moving shortly to a building on today’s Ocean Front Walk adjacent to Santa Monica Pier. His sideline of singing led him to be the principal tenor, as researched by Levin, for the Knickerbocker Light Opera Company in Los Angeles.
Calling himself a “singing impresario,” Nordskog officially launched his career in music, leaving his telephone company job. In a city directory listing from 1921, he was listed as the director and Daisy as accompanist for the “Nordskog Music and Fine Arts Studio,” housed in their Ocean Front Walk location. The same year, he created Nordskog Records, which was the first record studio in greater Los Angeles.
The facility, located at Ocean Avenue and Olympic Drive, featured equipment, as detailed by Levin, built by Nordskog’s father-in-law including acoustic recording using wooden horns that transferred the sounds to a needle with Frank Lockwood hand-turning the equipment to incise the grooves into the wax master disc. The records, however, were initially pressed in New Jersey. Shipment back to Los Angeles caused some of the masters to melt while in transit, including, according to Spikes, a recording by Jelly Roll Morton. Later, Nordskog procured six hydraulic presses capable of producing a million discs per year.
Although Nordskog was a classically trained vocalist, his studio was the location of a recording session by Kid Ory, creating the first jazz recordings in Los Angeles. Reb Spikes told Levin about the session, noting the band was in a small space and played into “tapered square boxes” with the piano and drums situated alongside one another. Spikes recalled that cornetist Mutt Carey, who was well known, “recorded the strongest” and that “it was as much his band as Ory’s.”
Notably, Spikes claimed that Ory’s recording was supposed to have been issued under his authority for Sunshine Records, but that Nordskog slapped his label on the newly minted phonographs and renamed Ory’s band as the “Seven Pods of Pepper”! Spikes stated that he simply took some of those records and pasted the Sunshine label with Sunshine Orchestra name over Nordskog’s and sold the remainder of the 5,000-unit run in his store or by mail order to Chicago. Other sources indicate that Nordskog had to sue Spikes over lack of payment for the Ory recordings and that Ory took some of the records and pasted the Sunshine label on the Nordskog issued product.
Levin also interviewed Dink Johnson, Morton’s brother-in-law, who filled in as a clarinetist at the Ory session and one of Johnson’s compositions, “Krooked Blues” was recorded the same day by Roberta Dudley. That tune was recorded in Chicago in 1923 by the famed King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which also featured as second cornetist behind the leader, a young talent named Louis Armstrong.
When Armstrong became, far and away, the leading light in jazz by the later 1920s, Ory became a member of Armstrong’s enormously important Hot Fives and Hot Sevens combos. Many years later, Ory returned to Los Angeles with an orchestra and was a featured player at the new Disneyland theme park. There is even video of Ory and Armstrong playing together on the Mark Twain steamboat.
As for Nordskog and his recording company, there is a web page from his grandson, who is a publisher (click here), with some excellent information. Nordskog’s skills as a singer and leader, demonstrated with his involvement in a Santa Monica philharmonic association, were such that he was hired to produce concerts at the new Hollywood Bowl, starting with a spring festival in 1920 and then the first edition of summer concerts, for which the Bowl is now renowned, the following year. One of the performers at those 1921 shows was Carrie Jacobs Bond, featured in a recent post in this blog by Homestead volunteer Tony Ciarriocco.
The record company collapsed when its pressing partner, the Arto Company, in New Jersey went bankrupt and eighty original masters were not returned to Nordskog, whose claim for $20,000 in relief was not paid. In 1923, Nordskog Records closed. A man with many interests, Nordskog was an author and publisher of a small newspaper, ran for Vice-President of the United States for the obscure Liberty Party in 1932, was an economics lecturer and lived until the late 1950s.
The Homestead collection is fortunate to have a very rare copy of a Nordskog record, a classical vocal performance with orchestral accompaniment by tenor Charles Harrison including “Only a Smile” on the A-side and “Somewhere a Voice is Calling” on the B-side. As the accompanying photos show, the label states that the Nordskog company was founded in 1921 as “First on the Pacific Coast.” Though it had a short life, it is an important one in greater Los Angeles musical history.