'UK jazz is in rude health': Janine Irons toasts Tomorrow's Warriors alumni Ezra Collective

'UK jazz is in rude health': Janine Irons toasts Tomorrow's Warriors alumni Ezra Collective

Janine Irons has predicted more success for homegrown jazz acts in the UK, following Ezra Collective’s latest award.

Irons and Gary Crosby (pictured with Ezra Collective’s Femi Koleoso) co-founded Tomorrow’s Warriors 32 years ago to offer free training and support to young musicians who want to break into jazz. Ezra Collective now stake a claim as the organisation’s most successful alumni.

The group made history as the first jazz act to win the Mercury Prize earlier this month and were shortlisted in three categories at the AIM Awards this week, triumphing for Best Creative Campaign in Association with Able.

Drummer and band leader Femi Koleoso dedicated the award to manager Amy Frenchum, who was pregnant during the campaign for Where I’m Meant To Be, which also saw the band nominated for Best Independent Breakthrough and Best Independent Video at the event.

Where I’m Meant To Be has 15,835 sales to date according to the Official Charts Company and a peak of No.24. Ezra Collective have 757,470 monthly listeners on Spotify.

Find more on the album campaign in our recent interview with Partisan’s Zena White here, and read on for Irons’ reflections on her organisation’s long history with the band here…

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Having known Ezra Collective for so long, what has it been like to witness their recent industry awards??

“Absolutely incredible! We were so thrilled to see Ezra Collective pick up the Mercury Prize, because it’s almost 10 years ago to the day that Tomorrow’s Warriors presented Ezra Collective, as they transitioned from the Tomorrow’s Warriors Youth Ensemble, on stage for the Music For Youth Proms at the Royal Albert Hall which, at the time, was the biggest show of their then fledgling career. They electrified the place, that was when you could see how special they were. Femi, TJ, Ife, Joe and James first came to Tomorrow’s Warriors in their early teens. They have worked so hard, doing what they love doing and grabbed every opportunity, so they truly deserve this recognition. It was absolutely wonderful for Tomorrow’s Warriors to be included in Femi’s acceptance speech and, soon after, one of the band messaged us privately with so much love, to say, “None of this would have been possible without you”. 

Ezra Collective shows all our young people what’s possible

Janine Irons

What does their success mean for organisations like yours and in turn the music industry in general? What impact can this have?

“Many have credited Tomorrow’s Warriors with contributing to the explosion in talent in UK Jazz, and changing the face of jazz in this country. Tomorrow’s Warriors support the grassroots talent pipeline into the music industry, and with Ezra Collective’s victory, it shows all our young people what’s possible. Femi affectionately calls Tomorrow’s Warriors a ‘youth club for musicians’, probably because it’s such a cool way to learn and play music, but we are actually a talent development organisation and charity that for the last 32 years has been developing musicians with free training in jazz, now at our base at Southbank Centre. These young people from all sorts of backgrounds can come and be part of a community with other like-minded musicians. It’s really inspiring, but we need ongoing support from donations to keep our talent development programme free. With the cuts to music education and arts, the cost of living crisis and cuts to youth services, programmes like ours are vital. We can’t afford to let the next Ezra Collective slip through the gaps!”

Femi spoke to Music Week about a jazz act winning the Mercury in 2019 and now they've become the first one to do it. Can you put your finger on why it was them in particular that did it? 

“Yes, it’s absolutely extraordinary, and wonderful! Tomorrow’s Warriors have had nine of our alumni achieve the Mercury Prize shortlist: Denys Baptiste, Soweto Kinch, ESKA, Cassie Kinoshi’s Seed Ensemble, Moses Boyd, Shabaka Hutchings’ Sons Of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming and Nubya Garcia. By the law of averages, it surely was about time a jazz act won! Seriously though, I think the time was just right. More people have been getting into jazz over the past three decades and Ezra Collective have managed to tap into a musical vein that delivers excitement for all ages. As I said earlier, back in 2013 when they electrified the Royal Albert Hall in what would have been one of their first outings as Ezra Collective, we knew they were special. They have the fire, passion, charisma, storytelling, so many gifts, and their album exemplifies this. The album itself really is a mature, very well-crafted album that speaks to audiences far beyond jazz, and I think Kate Hutchinson called it in the Guardian last year when she said it “could well be the one to cross over to the big league”. She was right!”  

Where is the next Ezra Collective going to come from? What is the state of UK jazz right now and how do you feel about the future?

“I’m not sure we have the next Ezra Collective, as they are who they are. But we do have lots of fantastic artists like Sultan Stevenson, Maddy Coombs, Luke Bacchus  and Cassius Cobbson emerging from our programme who are already starting to make a name for themselves. It’s a really dynamic and exciting scene, which we captured in a photograph called A Great Day In London, inspired by Art Kane’s iconic 1958 image, A Great Day In Harlem, and we will be releasing the image soon. It features generations of Warrior musicians from the past three decades and shows the impact and legacy. Also this month, we did a show with our Mercury-nominated tenor saxophonist alumna Nubya Garcia, who performed with our professional ensemble, Nu Civilisation Orchestra, reimagining Stan Getz’s seminal jazz-meets-classical album Focus at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The UK jazz scene is in rude health and lighting up stages around the world.”

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