Back in the Swing

Written by Jason P. Woodbury Category: People Issue: June 2015
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Less than three years after a stroke nearly ended his life and career, local vocal icon Dennis Rowland returns to the stage.

It’s a Friday night in front of Mesa Arts Center, and everyone’s here to swing.

On an outdoor stage, the 16-piece Bruce Gates Jazz Consortium Big Band tears through selections as dancers dressed in sharp suits and flowing dresses do the Lindy Hop. For the past hour, Gates has promised a special guest. Anticipation builds, and when he welcomes Dennis Rowland to the stage, there’s a burst of applause, shouts and coos of admiration from the audience (especially the ladies).

The 67-year-old Rowland bounds on stage. Dressed in a sharp black suit, with a red shirt and thin white tie, he’s trim and spry, with thick gray hair cropped tight, and wastes no time demonstrating just how comfortable he is at the mic, cuing the band up for Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” Accentuated by bursts of flute, Rowland prowls the stage, sheet music in hand, singing, “Fill my heart with song and let me sing forever more.”

Watching Rowland croon with such grace, it’s difficult to imagine that on December 19, 2012, the singer suffered a severe stroke and cerebral hemorrhage while driving to a Christmas rehearsal at Asbury United Methodist Church in Phoenix. Since the incident, he’s undertaken intense therapy, with the expressed goal of getting back to the stage.

“I was in the car, and all of a sudden it got stupid,” Rowland says a few days after the Mesa Arts Center performance, sipping a smoothie at the Village Health Club in Phoenix, where he plays basketball and lifts weights. Talking about the stroke is hard for Rowland, who managed to safely navigate his way through intense holiday traffic en route to the church after having his stroke.

“The first thing I said was, ‘I don’t think I can sing today, because I’m having a little problem,’” Rowland, ever the performance-minded pro, recalls.  

That’s the last thing he remembers before lapsing into a coma. He came to four days later, at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital – Rowland calls it “Joe’s” – where doctors informed him of his brush with death. “I was real far out there,” he says, adding he was in such bad shape that doctors weren’t sure he’d make it out of his coma.

Once he came “out of the fog,” Rowland immediately thought of his chief passions: singing and basketball. “I started humming,” he says, singing a brief scale to illustrate. “Just to see what that was. I didn’t try to sing words yet; I just wanted to make sure I could do that. The next thing was, I did this,” Rowland says, arching his wrist to shoot an imaginary basketball. He was diagnosed with aphasia and apraxia, motor-speech disorders that complicated his use of language. He spent Christmas in the ICU and New Year’s starting rehabilitation.

It took Rowland a year to get back to the stage. His return gig took place at Scottsdale Plaza Resort on Father’s Day, 2013. At first, he scatted with bands, a wordless vocalizing technique that found him operating more like a trumpet player than a vocalist. “I knew all the music; music was not a problem,” Rowland says. “My problem is the words. Not what [the words are] but how to say [them].”

photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Rowland coaching some of his vocal students at Scottsdale Community College: (l-r) Chris Cash, Surlah Ahn, Autumn Williams and  Mary Grace Lim.Music is in Rowland’s blood. Growing up in Detroit, he was surrounded by Motown soul but drawn mostly to classical music. After attending Kentucky State University, where he majored in music, he began teaching music and gigging at nightclubs. In 1977, he was recruited to front the Count Basie Orchestra, and toured and performed with the legendary swing outfit for seven years.

“That was the shit,” Rowland says with a chuckle about his time with the band, which found him sharing stages with jazz icons Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan. After Basie died in 1984, Rowland departed the group and spent time in Los Angeles, working with artists like trumpeter Ray Anthony and soul-jazz pioneer Grover Washington Jr. In 1987, he moved to Phoenix, in part to be near Sydney Blaine, an Emmy award-winning TV news producer he’d met in Tokyo in 1980 while on tour with Basie.

The two married in 1995, the same year Rowland embarked on a fruitful solo career, recording three albums for the Concord label with producer/drummer Gregg Field, 1995’s Rhyme, Rhythm, and Reason, 1996’s Get Here, and 1997’s Now Dig This: A Vocal Celebration of Miles Davis. The latter most superbly showcases Rowland’s silky but emotive style, applied to classics written by or associated with the cool jazz titan, including powerful takes on songs like “All Blues,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “Meaning of the Blues.”

The music featured on his solo albums isn’t easy stuff, Rowland explains. He’s trying to get to the point where he can perform it again, working weekly with a speech therapist and undergoing physical therapy. He’s back at work as an educator, teaching music at Scottsdale Community College. His time on stage is increasing, with shows like the Mesa Arts Center gig and a sold-out performance in April at Peoria Center for the Arts.

“I’m going to get it a lot better than where it is now, but it had to start somewhere,” Rowland says. “I wanted it so bad.”

The singer has already received offers to tour in countries like Russia and Germany. He’s uncertain whether he’s going to make it over there, but he’s plenty busy here, performing every Sunday at St. Francis. “I’m not done,” Rowland says, grinning widely, anticipating more time on the stage. “Oh yeah, hell yeah. It’s gonna happen. That’s what I do.”

Watching Rowland on stage at Mesa Arts Center, it’s clear he’s not kidding. “I’ve never done this one before in my life, but I’m gonna do it anyway,” he says, a white lie he’ll later confess, but one that gets the crowd primed. He turns to the band and leads them into a slinky take on Sinatra’s “All or Nothing at All.” Reading from his notes, Rowland softly intones. “All or nothin’ at all/Half a love never appealed to me,” he sings.

All of it – the words, the notes, the seemingly nonchalant stage craft – require tremendous effort from Rowland, but he makes it look easy, coming off as a seasoned pro confidently taking on a standard he’s sang countless times before. As the band roars to a rousing finish, Rowland glows with pride, posing for snapping cameras. As he leaves the stage to take a breather, he leans toward keyboardist Nick Manson. It’s hard to hear him over the crowd’s applause, but he’s just loud enough.

“See how easy that was?”

Keep on Rowland
Upcoming performances by Dennis Rowland:
Jazz Brunch: Every Sun. at St. Francis in Phoenix (stfrancisaz.com)
Howlin' at the Highlands: July 11 at Highland Center in Prescott (prescottjazz.com)
Prescott Jazz Summit: Aug. 28-30 (prescottjazz.com)
check dennisrowland.com for more show dates