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Q&A: Irv Kratka

...its extensive library of “participatory recordings,” back-up tracks that provide vocalists and instrumentalists the experience of playing with a full ensemble. “Retirement is for sissies,” he quips, from his office in Elmsford, New York, just outside of New York City. In addition to a formidable work ethic, Kratka continues to be driven by an abiding love for music. Inspired by Gene Krupa, he began taking drum lessons at age 13, and by 20 had founded his first record label. Four years later he was aggressively promoting the novel concept of recordings that allowed musicians of all levels to experience the thrill of playing with a chamber ensemble, a symphony orchestra, or a jazz band. In 1983 he helped usher in the first karaoke boom with Pocket Songs, a library of back-up tracks for 13,000 popular songs. Although Music Minus One has evolved from a one-man show to a publisher offering over a thousand titles, as well as distribution rights to recordings from other companies, Kratka remains a “hands-on” proprietor. “I wake up every morning, thinking about what record we should make next,” he says. “I still get a kick out of the process.”

What was your earliest exposure to music and when did you start playing?

I was 13 when the swing era was just hitting its stride, and Gene Krupa was my idol. I used my lunch money to pay for drum lessons at 25 cents per-half hour. For the first couple of months, my parents were unaware of it. About two years later, my older brother took me to the Paramount Theater in New York to see the Benny Goodman band in person and it was a life changing event. I guess I’ve been involved in music ever since.

Are you formally trained in classical composition and performance, or more of a self-taught jazz musician?

I took lessons from Billy Gladstone, the primary percussionist for the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra. He was an amazing musician, a tough taskmaster, and a creative inventor. He designed special cigarette lighters and all kinds of other gadgets. Shelley Manne was also one of his students. Other than that, I was pretty much self-taught. Jazz is the music of my choice, and my understanding of it is pretty extensive. My understanding of classical music came about by employing a classical director and absorbing what I could through working with gifted musicians.

What provided the inspiration for Music Minus One?

When I was 20, I started my first record company. I was a fan of jazz pianist Dick Hyman and persuaded him to do three recordings at Peter Bartok’s studio in New York. (Bartok was the son of famed Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.) I brought them out on the Classic Editions label and had some success. Later I recorded a few woodwind ensembles and some classical organ albums. I was running out of ideas of what to record next and I asked Abner Levin what I should do. He was the manager of the Sam Goody record store in New York, which was a big deal then because Sam Goody had just introduced discounting into the record business. He suggested I take a look at this German company, Add-A-Part.

Add-A-Part had offered ensemble accompaniments for soloists. But they were on 78 records that had only about four minutes a side, making them impractical for a musician. You’d have to get up and change the record every four minutes, which didn’t work if you were playing a string quartet or concerto. The LP, which offered about 25 minutes per side, was just coming out, and I figured it would be perfect for an accompaniment record.

Tell me about the first Music Minus One recording. How did you select the music and the musicians? How did you sell the finished product?

While I was taking lessons with Billy Gladstone, I had developed relationships with a lot of the players in the Radio City Orchestra. I got four of the string players, along with Harriet Wingreen, the rehearsal pianist for the New York Philharmonic, and we recorded five versions of the Schubert “Trout” quintet. We picked the “Trout” because it’s such a beautiful and important piece of music. Back in 1950, there were record distributors in just about every major city, so I sold the finished recording to them, and they pushed it out to the stores.

What was the initial response to the record?

Amazingly positive. Not too long after I had finished the Trout Quintet recordings, I remember walking home with my wife after going to a movie on Saturday night. We stopped to pick up The New York Times, which had extensive music reviews at the time. Was I in for a surprise. Howard Taubman, the music critic, had written a full page review raving about this great new company, Music Minus One, and what brilliant idea the recording was. From there, I was interviewed by Time, Life, Newsweek, and just about every other national publication. That initial burst of publicity was a great send-off for a new venture.

Where did the Music Minus One name come from?

It was something I just dreamed up. It was alliterative, it was short and memorable, and it explained exactly what we did.

Did you envision the recordings as an educational tool? Entertainment for players who wanted the experience of playing with an ensemble? Something else perhaps?

We were solving a problem for musicians. We made it possible for them to have the experience of playing with a string quartet or orchestra. Some of our earliest advertising was to the Chamber Music Network, a national group that helps chamber musicians locate fellow musicians in cities around the country. They latched on to the Music Minus One concept very early.

How have you recruited musicians for your recordings, and how do you decide what to record?

Sometimes the process is deliberate, but it’s amazing how much of our catalog has come together because of random suggestions and accidental networking. At some point, Harriet Wingreen suggested I get in touch with John Wustman, a very talented vocal accompanist who was working with the Robert Shaw Chorale. It was just at the time when the Shaw Chorale had been chosen as the world’s best vocal group in a prestigious competition in Russia. John agreed to do albums for us, and he was amazing to work with. He selected the music, came incredibly prepared, and I even turned the pages during the sessions. The resulting 33 CDs he did covered a huge swath of the vocal repertoire, and because of his reputation, were instant hits. John went on to accompany just about every major singer, including Luciano Pavarotti, and his vocal accompaniments remain strong sellers in our catalog.

On another occasion, I persuaded Jim Raney, Stan Getz’s guitarist, to do a session. Stan saw Jim working on a score, asked what it was. When Jim told him that it was for a Music Minus One album, Stan asked if he could sit in on the session. This was when Stan and his Bossa Nova albums were topping the charts. When Jim called to ask if Stan could sit in, you can imagine my response.

For the sake of musical authenticity, I’ve traveled the world to get the best players. I’ve had the opportunity to record symphony orchestras both in the USA and abroad, including in Vienna and Prague. And I’ve gone to New Orleans to recruit great jazz players.

Music Minus One is best known for more serious recordings. But, you became active in the karaoke market with the introduction of Pocket Songs. How did that come about?

I’ve been called the father of karaoke, but our involvement in vocal accompaniments goes back well before the karaoke boom. In the ’50s, I put together an amazing rhythm section—Mundell Lowe, guitar; Kenny Clark, Charlie Parker’s drummer; Hank Jones on piano; and Oscar Pettiford on bass—and we recorded all the great standards by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and other great songwriters. Songs people know by heart and still sing today. Based on that experience, it was a natural progression to produce high-quality vocal tracks of pop songs.

Over the length of your career, recording technology has changed dramatically. How has this affected your work? Is it easier today to produce a quality recording?

I started when the industry was still releasing 78s, and then saw the transition to the LP, the cassette, and the CD. I also saw the recording process go from tape, to multi-track, to digital. But a good recording is still about a musician and a microphone in a studio. The challenge of creating something musically valid is the same.

Speaking personally, in the transition to digital technology, some of the warmth and nuance has been lost. That’s probably why there’s a resurgence in vinyl records today. But for most people, especially the generation that’s been raised listening to MP3 recordings, they don’t care that much about these subtleties.
Where the technology has helped us is in selling into international markets. Players can download a score and a recording and avoid costly shipping fees. Digital technology also lets us keep some really slow-moving items in our catalog, a piece that sells maybe five copies a year. It’s not cost effective to print it and press the CDs, but we can offer it digitally.

What are you producing right now that has you excited?

We’re getting ready to release some full orchestral recordings made by Stephen Ware, using some advanced digital technology. The albums he’s produced for us so far, for sheer technical quality, exceed the best that live orchestras have produced. He’s currently finishing up a new recording of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, replacing a version we’ve had available for over 35 five years. This new version will be available both on CD and digitally at special pricing.

I’ve discovered two extraordinary musicians, Robert and Glenn Zottola, and have begun a very extensive series of recordings with each of them. Brothers, they’ve both been musicians since childhood, with the older brother Bob performing with major orchestras such as Benny Goodman and the East Coast Frank Sinatra band. He subsequently performed in the original production of Les Miserable for 16 years before retiring to Naples where he’s plying his craft as the resident primary jazz trumpeter in that city as well as performing with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra on occasion.

Could you talk about the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?

Nothing really stands out. Like any business, we’ve had obstacles, but we’ve just soldiered on.

Any people that have influenced or inspired you?

That would include just about all the musicians I’ve worked with over the years. It’s inspiring when you see someone close up who has a gift for making music.

Do you have any favorite musicians or musical styles? And, if you were on a desert Island, what five records would you want to have?

I initially got hooked on big bands, but then I got interested in earlier jazz, discovering people like Louis Armstrong, George Lewis, and Baby Dodds, who was the drummer for the Hot Five and Seven sessions in 1926. It would be hard to choose, but that early New Orleans style is still my favorite.

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