Eric Dunan marks 20 years at WollCon

In the News: Illawarra Mercury

Story by Ben Langford – Illawarra Mercury (September 30, 2021)

It’s 20 years since a young trumpeter from Northern California named Eric Dunan rolled up at Wollongong’s Conservatorium of Music looking for a job. The place – and the musical life of countless students – hasn’t been the same since.

From the time Eric Dunan first put a trumpet to his lips as a boy, he knew he wanted to be a jazz player.

Not whether he wanted to make a living from it, or teaching, but he knew the buzzing of the bright, stately horn was for him.

Dunan runs the jazz program at the Wollongong Conservatorium of Music and is this year marking 20 years since turned up looking for a job. Not bad for a blow-in. A gregarious, popular and ever-positive figure around the Con’s gorgeous campus, he’s driven by a passion that music is for joy: of creating, of listening, of playing.

Born near San Francisco and growing up in Californian college town of San Luis Obispo on the state’s central coast, Dunan was exposed to plenty of music at a young age.

While his father wasn’t a musician, he loved jazz and would take the young Eric to see bands that would visit – particularly the big bands – since before he was 10. San Luis Obispo was home to Cuesta community college, which was blessed with the visionary music leader Warren Balfour.

“He created this jazz program and he would bring in world-class jazz musicians … the Count Basie Big Band, Stan Kenton Big Band, Jimmy Smith, all these great jazz musicians,” Dunan, now 54, told Weekender.

“Every time someone cool came in to San Luis Obispo we’d go and see them.”

With high school done Dunan headed to Cuesta to study music, and regularity of top musicians visiting, giving students access to what they do, has continued to inform the way he handles the program at the Con.

“I’ve modelled this program after the work [Warren Balfour] did at Cuesta because it seemed to me so interesting and innovative – he was a massive influence on me,”

“I was super inspired by my music teachers in high school, college, and university because not only were they great teachers, they were also great musicians.

“They changed so many people’s lives and I realised by the time I was 18 that was what I wanted to do as well – play great and help others play great and be constantly improving in both.

“I started playing trumpet in Year 7 and as soon as it touched my lips I knew that I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player.”

“Regardless how I made a living, I would identify myself as a jazz trumpeter. That hasn’t ever changed.”

After Cuesta he played as a musician, mostly in San Francisco, a hub for jazz since the early 1900s.

Dunan doesn’t approach his job just as a teacher, or a band leader. He’s an active recruiter to the world of music, spotting talent an encouraging kids to give it a go.

He talks the lingo of a jazz man as well, his sentences punctuated with “man”, “cool”, maybe the occasional “dig it” or “cat”, which is disarming to both students and parents alike. [Disclosure: this writer’s son plays in Dunan-led bands.]

Seen in action at rehearsals or a performance, his relaxed approach and frequent jokes smoothe over any scratchiness that may come from performers or the conditions. Jazz is a free-flowing form, and Dunan goes with it, seeking, sharing the joy that music brings. But don’t think that precludes precision.

“What I do is quite unique,” Dunan said.

“I taught in the school system in America and briefly here in Australia and enjoyed both, but there were aspects of those jobs … that I did not fully enjoy. I ran jazz bands, concert bands and a string orchestra. I was quite good at it … organising performances, taking bands to festivals and doing cool things.

“But in the music education … classroom music … I didn’t connect with the desks, nor with the written assignments or assessments, and I wasn’t comfortable with the HSC as it pertains to music.

“I realised that the kids who were really getting joy out of playing music and were really getting advanced, playing at a higher level, were the kids who were getting assistance outside of school. So I designed this program based on what I thought would be offer the most opportunity for young people who wanted to play, in a way that I knew I would be good at facilitating.”

What does that mean? In two words: “Full joy”.

And a major part of it is performances – both by student ensembles, and by top quality groups brought to Wollongong (at least, when that was possible, and once again when the clouds lift).

“A huge thing which I think is important is for my students to see professional musicians playing … that’s how I got into the music. There’s a big component here in my program of bringing great musicians to play concerts for my students. Not all of them go but in the psyche of the people learning here is there are those opportunities – there are people doing that at a high level.”

“I think my kids, they see the posters, they get the buzz, there’s always something happening and the Wollongong Conservatorium seems to be the epicentre of it.”

Like any parent trying to insist their child practices their instrument, Dunan understands that the fun bit involves work.

Contacted for this story, Wollongong writer Ali Jane Smith, whose daughter has played in Dunan bands, offered “a little story”.

“One morning I had a meeting at the uni,” she said. “As I was riding past the Uni bar I saw Eric walking out of the stage door, carrying a drum case.

“He was lugging gear from a gig he had organised the night before for the student ensembles at the Con. Just Eric, by himself, lugging gear the morning.

“We see Eric in rehearsals, at performances, at the gigs he organises and think ‘wow, he does a lot’. And then there’s all the work we don’t see.”

Dunan says getting young students to see high quality music is key to them continuing to be enthused about playing music.

“It’s my passion project where young people who have an interest in playing music come to a beautiful place and get hands-on experience playing with other like-minded people,” Dunan said.

We’re told that post-school education choices need to be vocation-oriented – yet many people find they need to embark a new career mid-stream. Dunan didn’t plan this, yet it’s worked.

“I absolutely love coming to work every day,” Dunan said. “I love it today just as much as I loved the first day I put the trumpet on my lips 40 years ago and as much as I loved this job when I started putting it together 20 years ago.”