Black Empowerment: Dune Records

Dune Records: Janine Irons pt. 1

A few years back my friend and colleague John Murph turned me on to a then-burgeoning record company started by black musicians in the UK, Dune Records.  The label has released potent music by such UK stalwarts as bassist Gary Crosby at the helm of his Nu Troop and the large ensemble Jazz Jamaica All-Stars rich amalgamation of jazz and Caribbean flavors; alto saxophonist-rapper Soweto Kinch; tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste, and New Orleans transplant trumpeter Abram Wilson. 


Dune is an example of black empowerment in the record business that recalls such other African American-fueled record enterprises as the Stanley Cowell/Charles Tolliver Strata East label, as well as Detroit’s sister Strata label, Harold Battiste’s New Orleans modernist label AFO, and the old Black Jazz label; and in its musicians’ collective work and mentoring efforts, the AACM. The latest releases from Kinch and Baptiste all have significant narrative qualities that aren’t about Ooo Baby Baby or cash money pursuits and further propel their music.  Impressed with the collectivism evident in their musician-controlled environment, their education outreach, and the fact that each Dune recording is project-oriented and not some simple blowing session, I sought out Dune’s CEO Janine Irons for some insights.


Willard Jenkins: Please detail the origins and operating philosophy of Dune Music.


Janine Irons: In 1996 Gary [Crosby] was awarded a small grant from Arts Council England to produce a record by his group Nu Troop.  Our thoughts behind it were essentially to produce a high quality demo to send to promoters in order to help secure live gigs for the band.  On release, in April 1997, we received an excellent response to this recording (Migrations) in the national and specialist press, and so went on to record our next group, J-Life (who were graduates of our Tomorrow’s Warriors artist development program), again to secure live work.  Their recording — Tomorrow’s Warriors presents… J-Life (March 1998) — also received great acclaim and it was around this time that we started to win awards for both J-Life and Nu Troop.


Up until this point I had done everything apart from play the music!  I did the photography, the liner notes, the artwork, the press/PR, the distribution… everything!  However, with our third release, Denys Baptiste’s Be Where You Are (1999), we decided to engage professional designers to ease the pressures on me.  Again, this album received great critical acclaim and, to our utter amazement, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, the most prestigious music prize in the UK which looks for the best releases of British music regardless of genre.


This was a turning point in Dune’s life as a label.  Whereas previously we had never intended to be a commercial label, being thrust into the spotlight with the Mercury nomination forced us to see ourselves as a ‘proper’ label.  To take advantage of the interest in the label we hired a professional press officer, gaining substantial coverage and profile for Denys and Dune.  As a result we started to gain confidence in our ability to be a ‘real’ label and to get a sense of where we could go with it.  People started to take notice of Dune and to deal with us as professionals. 


It was rather scary, looking back, because I had absolutely no training or experience in the music industry and had simply worked on instinct!  Suddenly I was a record company executive and a real artist manager!  People were sending me their press packs and demos wanting to sign up!  Little did many of them realize that Dune was simply a desk in my living room with little old me sitting there.  But I suppose it’s a great compliment to have people see the work we were doing as high quality and professional even though we were just learning on the job.


So this is how Dune was born.  At the time my father said that we could become the Motown of jazz if we put our minds to it.  Gary and I laughed and dismissed it at the time, but as time went on we started to think more about it and how we could actually become a creative home for young black jazz artists.  After all, our work in Tomorrow’s Warriors meant that we were working with some of the most talented young black musicians, all of whom had an expectation that they would get to record an album.  Given how the major labels shun young talent it made sense for Dune to take on that A&R role and, wherever possible, provide ongoing support for the rising stars coming out of Tomorrow’s Warriors.


Today Dune exists to support the artists on the roster, most of who have been developed as members of Tomorrow’s Warriors.  The exceptions are Gary Crosby (as the founder of Tomorrow’s Warriors and Dune) and Abram Wilson, although Abram has immersed himself completely in the development of our young Warriors and is now the assistant director of Tomorrow’s Warriors.


We continue to receive demos from numerous musicians asking for a deal but what they fail to recognize is that we are not your average record label.  We don’t scout for talent.  All of our artists are musicians whom we’ve worked with over a very long period, whom we’ve helpted to develop and grow as artists.  We have very close working relationships with each of them and consider them family. For example, we’ve worked with Denys Baptiste since he was about 20 years old; with Soweto [Kinch] since he was about 15 years old; Andrew McCormack since he was about 16 years old.  We are deeply and personally committed to helping these guys achieve their full potential, not so much in how many records they can sell or how much money they can make.  Of course, now that Dune is a ‘commercial’ label we do have to think about the viability of their recordings.  But in terms of the projects that they do we always start by looking at the artistic value and not the commercial value.


At some point in the future we do hope to be able to take on more artists and for the label to be able to license product.  But given existing resources — I am the only artist manager in the company with a very small staff of two, soon to be three, and two interns — there is a limit to how much we can take on.  I certainly do not wish to take on an artist and not be able to give him or her 110% committment in terms of my time and resources. 


As an artist manager I take my responsibilities very seriously indeed because I am responsible for the career of my artists.  If they were to fail because I hadn’t been able to devote my time and resources to their careers I’d be devastated.  I already work a minimum 12-hour day, and at least twice a week I work through the night to stay on top of everything.  So right now I can’t give any more, especially as [she and Gary Crosby’s] daughter rarely gets to see me during the week apart from getting her ready for school!


So certainly for the time being, Dune can only consider artists drawn from Tomorrow’s Warriors, and to be a Warrior an artist must be totally committed not only to their art but also to the aims of the organization.  They must be committed to supporting their fellow musicians and to helping the organization develop into the creative home that we want it to be.  We want to create a legacy for the next generation so everyone involved, be they artists or staff, must have the right level of committment. 


WJ: Was Dune developed in response to what you and your cohorts saw as a disparity in either the UK jazz scene or a disparity of opportunity for the musicians involved?


JI: Absolutely.  The Jazz Warriors in the 80s helped to raise the visibility of young black jazz musicians, but that was pretty much short-lived.  As the individual members of the Jazz Warriors went off to pursue solo careers the platform for those coming after them was lost.  The major labels lost interest in jazz generally and in those artists in particular (with the exception of Courtney Pine who went on to build a very successful career) so there was nobody out there to support the youngsters coming up.  This is why Gary established Tomorrow’s Warriors in the early 90s.  He created a platform — through regular jam sessions at a good London venue — Jazz Cafe in Camden — for young musicians to come and join him on stage so they could develop their chops and gain some visibility.  [Gary Crosby] was particularly seeking out the young black musicians as he knew they were out there somewhere with nowhere to go.


One of the major problems facing young black musicians (then and now, though it’s not quite as dire now) was the lack of access to career development opportunities.  The majority of jazz musicians in the UK are white middle-class kids who’ve had private tuition from a very young age, had their own instruments, gone straight into their local youth jazz orchestra, studied music at school, and then gone into one of the conservatories, while perhaps [also] joining the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.  After that they come out already having become part of a network, making it easier for them to find work. 


Not so for your average young black musician who very likely has started music late because of cultural or economic reasons (or both), has not had the opportunity to take up music at school, or had their own instrument.  These youngsters are then significantly behind their white counterparts by time to go to college.  So they don’t make the grade to go to a conservatory because, for example, their music reading skills may not be up to scratch.  They’re not in any kind of network so have little if any support, and so they fall by the wayside.  If they’re lucky they might get the odd gig in their local pub but little beyond this.


Gary could see all this happening, and projecting into the future saw that unless something was done about it there would be no professional black jazz musicians in the UK in 20 or so year’s time.  Hence Tomorrow’s Warriors.  He was not so much interested in a young musician’s ability to read charts as in his or her raw talent and potential for development.  He wanted to see more black faces on the stages of our top venues; either as soloists or as members of orchestras and jazz groups, and really raise their visibility.


Fortunately the Arts Council of England also recognized the disparity of opportunity and was so willing to support Gary’s endeavors (initially through a series of very small grants to help him put on the weekly jam sessions.  As time has passed we’ve managed to develop the organization quite significantly so that today Tomorrow’s Warriors is recognized as one of the leading and most successful organizations for professional artist development and receives significant core funding from Arts Council of England as a regularly funded organization to pursue our aims and continue our work.

            Further info:


[Editor’s note: Are you listening to that last paragraph National Endowment for the Arts?]


Next Time: Part 2 of our interview with Janine Irons discussing the significance of Dune Music rising from the black experience in the UK, as well as the future plans of Dune Music.  Stay tuned…



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