For some, a quick vocal run will suffice. For others, drinking hot tea with honey is the perfect remedy to open up their vocal chords. Local jazz singer Dennis Rowland, however, plays basketball and lifts weights at the Camelback Village Racquet and Health Club.
“I usually come to the Village about three times a week, but sometimes I have to increase that to four. I work out to stay young and I believe that if the body is warm, then the voice will be warm,” said Rowland. “I like coming into the gym and getting all pumped up for a show and then going onstage afterward and letting it all out.”
Community members, faculty, parents and students of the Arizona School for the Performing Arts will get to experience firsthand Rowland’s “warm” voice and strong stage presence Friday evening when he performs at the school’s Spring Fusion concert alongside their student jazz orchestra.
Performing with students in the Phoenix area is one of the many things Rowland does to keep himself occupied after his nearly 40-year career in the music industry.
Rowland’s life in jazz started when he was a young child living in Detroit, a city known for the birth of a new soul sound along with the founding of Motown Records.
Always musically inclined, Rowland said singing came naturally and that his mother had a large influence on him.
“I come from a family that loved music and loved to play records,” Rowland said. “My mother was a great singer and she also played piano, so she taught me a lot about music.”
While he was growing up, Rowland learned all he could about the piano and how to properly sing and, at the age of 12, he auditioned for Motown Records. Being around music, Rowland said he always knew he wanted to sing professionally.
“There were a lot of shows on at the time, such as American Bandstand, that brought music to life for the audience who listened to it,” Rowland said. “Watching that show, I wanted to emulate the singers I saw perform on my television.”
When his mother took him to the record label’s recording studio, he was able to audition in front of Eddie Holland, a musician who was key in the songwriting and production of songs that would comprise the “Motown Sound.” But the audition did not go as planned as Rowland was not signed.
“I remember walking into the studio and they told me to sit at the piano and to just sing. I did it and they told me that I was heading in the right direction, but that I wasn’t what they were looking for,” Rowland said. “I just wanted to be heard though and I wanted to make an impression. I didn’t feel any pressure because I was confident in my talent and I knew I would still sing.”
After the failed audition, Rowland went on to sing at his local church, as well as in the high school choir and male glee club.
After high school, Rowland studied music in college while playing in local bars and clubs in Detroit to support himself. He got a job as a high-school music teacher after graduation, but it wasn’t until the age of 29 that he would hit his big break.
In 1977, Rowland met William “Count” Basie through some mutual friends, which led to a contract to tour with Basie and his orchestra.
Rowland packed his bags and toured with Basie as a featured vocalist, a gig that would last for seven years and would take him around the world.
“You don’t remember all of the bad things in life,” Rowland said. “You mostly remember the good. Playing with this orchestra brought so much good to my life. I felt like the journey of my life had started.”
While touring with the orchestra, Rowland had the opportunity to play with many of his idols he grew up listening to, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan. He felt the experience brought all of his childhood records to life and the lifelong wait to be in the music industry worthwhile.
The wild ride would come to a screeching halt, however, when Basie passed away in 1984. Not knowing what to do after touring for such a long time, Rowland decided to split his time between Los Angeles and Phoenix, opting for a more quiet life.
After settling down in Phoenix, Rowland recorded three solo albums in the mid-1990s with Concord Records.
“When I had the opportunity to record my first record with Concord, I felt like it was my new beginning for my music career,” Rowland said. “Every level of the music industry has its issues, but for me it was still exciting.”
Now, Rowland has dedicated his time to giving back to the community through various art projects.
In recent years, he has delved into acting, appearing in local short films that have been featured at the Sedona and Phoenix Film Festivals, as well as doing voiceovers for various commercials.
Adding to his busy career, Rowland also sings in local bars, such as the Kazimierz World Wine Bar in Scottsdale. Rowland recalled one time when the cast of the television show Glee stopped by to sing with him. He has been known to sing the National Anthem at Phoenix Suns games and gave a special performance at the Capitol during Arizona’s Centennial.
Because of his prominence in the jazz music scene throughout the Valley, the Arizona School for the Arts invited Rowland to sing alongside the student jazz orchestra at the school’s Spring Fusion concert tonight.
The concert, which is aimed to celebrate the school’s grand opening of two new facilities that will act as the permanent residence of the school, will feature Rowland as a main performer, backed up by an orchestra comprised of only middle-school and high-school students.
Adam Roberts, ASA band teacher, is excited with the work Rowland has done with his students.
“I’ve been playing with Rowland for almost a decade now and I wanted to work with him because I feel like he is a walking legend in our community,” Roberts said. “The level of inspiration and level of depth he brings to the classroom is amazing and the kids are just captivated by him.”
In holding this concert with his longtime friend, Roberts hopes the school will get the recognition it has been waiting for.
“The Spring Fusion will hopefully make more people aware of who we are,” Roberts said. “Our program is still a little too subtle, so I think that this event will act as our coming-out party.”
Lyn Marquis, ASA’s chief development officer, hopes Rowland’s appearance at the concert will draw members from the community to the school event.
“A lot of neighbors have lived with us through the construction, so we are hoping that the concert, as well as new school facility, will act as a gateway to the arts in downtown and add to the urban landscape,” Marquis said.
Adding to the urban landscape is one of the many reasons why Rowland will continue to participate in the Phoenix jazz music scene. He wants to show children the importance of music.
“I hope that the students of ASA get a taste of what it is like to play in the real world,” Rowland said. “I want to teach them the learning principles of show business. But mostly, I want to inspire them to get better and to not ever give up on music. I want them to learn that you have to work at it, no matter what it is that you do.”
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