Record label PR file: Dune Records

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"We never planned on being a label," says Dune Records boss, Janine Irons. "We just wanted to find a way to give young black jazz artists the opportunity of getting the same breaks as their white counterparts.

"My business and personal partner, musician Gary Crosby, set up jam sessions at the Jazz Café in Camden in 1991 for musicians to come and play; to make mistakes and take their licks on stage, metaphorically speaking. The best ones shone and Gary asked them to join his group, Nu Troop. Once they had developed Gary passed control of the stage to the next generation and the project became formalised as Tomorrow's Warriors, with older members mentoring the younger ones."

With Arts Council funding, Nu Troop produced a demo intended for promoters and so a label in need of an identity was born. "We scanned our bookcase and saw Frank Herbert's Dune. It could easily have been an Agatha Christie book!"

Media coverage of the demo was so positive it spurred on Irons and Crosby to encourage the next emerging group, J-Life, to make a record.

"When this won awards in Germany and France, it really kick started the label," remembers Irons. "These great artists were coming through our programme, but having nowhere to go afterwards so we ended up taking on the roles of recording label and management."

The name Dune stuck and in 1999 Dune Records released their third album, Be Where you Are by Denys Baptiste. This went beyond the success of the first two releases, Migrations by Nu Troop and Tomorrow's Warriors presents... J-Life, netting a Mercury Music Prize for Album of the Year and a MOBO Award for Best Jazz Act.

This is an impressively fast rise for any label, especially a jazz one with a woman who describes herself as an "eternal pessimist" at the helm. Instead, Irons comes across as genuinely passionate about music and with a steely determination to get on with the practical as opposed to making business plans.

She was born and still lives in Harrow, where the label is also based. She trained as a classical pianist with a teacher who was rumoured to have worked with Previn and was offered a solo vocal contract at the age of 16 as the result of singing in a funk band. Instead, Irons headed for the city.

"I went into the city which was well-paid but boring. The only connection with music was a spell working at the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes. So I changed tack and enrolled on a City & Guilds photography course," she says.

It was during Irons' first foray into photography that she met double bassist Gary Crosby who soon had her helping out with his band. One thing led to another, according to Irons, and soon she was managing the artists, helping them record and founding a label.

Dune Records' small, family ethos remains. The only requirement for artists joining the Tomorrow's Warriors project is that they commit to mentoring the younger members once graduated. The selected musicians are given a paid professional apprenticeship after which the majority go on to record, with Dune or elsewhere.

So is it only a label for black musicians? Irons believes that young black people are less likely to have received the formal training of their white counterparts, "whether it be a question of money or their parents not being into formal music education." But Dune is open to anyone who can bring something to the jazz scene. "We have Andrew McCormack, he's a fabulous pianist and a stalwart of the label, not just our token white person," says Irons.

"I'd love Dune to expand in the future. But it's all to do with money. Jazz records just don't sell as well as pop ones, however good they are. Likewise, the financial rewards as a manager aren't as good.

"We are tiny, with tiny resources. Unless we suddenly get some very big bucks to hire another manager, I'm not willing to take on more artists than I can properly support.

"In the meantime, I just want to keep jazz thriving. A lot of what's out there on the market is good, but not jazz at all. This and winning a Mercury Music Prize are key ambitions for the label. I know I'm biased, but I truly believe we have some of the most exciting players in the UK and we swing; we swing hard."

Sarah Birke

Introduction: Dune Records adheres to the original black roots of jazz but encourages its artists, who are nurtured from a young age, to incorporate other music forms. They have won a plethora of awards.

History: Janine Irons (pictured) blagged her way into a jazz gig as a freelance photographer where she met future partner, Gary Crosby. Initially just helping out with his band, she ended up managing a number of artists and helping with the recording and release of records. Dune Records was founded by Irons and Crosby in 1997, although the first seven years - which saw two Mercury Music Awards - were spent operating out of Irons' front room.

What they say: "Usually you spot someone spectacular immediately, even if they haven't yet had the training to fulfil their potential. Or other artists might say good things about somebody until the noise gets so great we have to take notice," label MD Irons.

Notable acts include: Denys Baptiste, Soweto Kinch. Abram Wilson, Jazz Jamaica.

Top tips for 2007: Soweto Kinch releases the second part of his album, performs a commission with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and makes his TV presenting debut.

Pub fact: In the Queen's 2006 Birthday Honours Irons received an MBE for services to the music industry. When she read the letter, she thought it was for her partner, Crosby.