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Dennis Rowland/May 2017/Arcadia News

Whether mentoring students, playing basketball with his boys, or singing on stage, Dennis Rowland has worked

hard to reclaim his musical life. Most Arizonans know him from dynamic performances at Herberger Theater

Center, Sanctuary Resort, or Desert Botanical Garden. But four years ago, the Grammy-nominated jazz performer

nearly died from complications associated with a stroke.

On his way to a Christmas concert rehearsal, Rowland suffered a severe stroke at the entrance of Ashbury United

Methodist Church, December 19th, 2012. He was rushed to St. Joseph’s ER. His brain hemorrhaged when doctors

doctors administered intravenous TPA, standard treatment for anyone with his diagnosis. Only 4% of stroke patients

experience an adverse reaction. Rowland fell into that rare margin.

Doctors immediately transferred him upstairs to Barrow’s Neurological Institute ICU. His condition changed from

serious to dire. He was not expected to survive.

“Dr. Joni Clark, the neurologist took my hand,” said Sydney Blaine, Rowland’s wife of 17 years. “She told me,

‘I just saw your husband perform at the Musical Instrument Museum. I’m so sorry.’”

As a chaplain stood nearby, Blaine was told to think about making arrangements for her husband.

After nearly a month in the hospital, Rowland returned to his home in Arcadia, even though he could not hold himself up, walk or talk. Blaine became his 24/7 caretaker. She had no idea how much that would entail, but soldiered on after a crash course from his hospital team. Ultimately, she took over, assisting him to stand, dress, eat, walk, and practice his therapeutic exercises.

Blaine learned Rowland’s musical background and talent would contribute to his ability to regain language – talking and singing – quicker than the average stroke survivor. From Day 1 in ICU, Blaine stationed a small CD player with Rowland’s music playing softly in the background. Rowland grew up in a musical household and started piano lessons at seven years old. It was only natural that music would be the conduit to bring him back to himself.

“I remember telling Sydney, ‘Oh so that’s what I sing like? That’s what I sound like?’” said Rowland, speaking about his recovery. “Oh, ok. Now I know who I’m supposed to be!”

While the stage was his first home, the gym came in at a close second. Rowland split his formative years between singing in choirs and bands and playing high school basketball. For years, before his stroke, he played basketball regularly at Camelback Village Health and Racquetball Club with the same group of guys.

“His baseline fitness played a huge role in his recovery,” said Dr. James Frye, founder of Barrow’s Stroke Program. “Too many patients come in here and can’t handle the brutal interventions necessary to get back to being active and healthy.”

Rowland’s first visit back to The Village gym was intense. He and Sydney cautiously made their way to the basketball courts. He still needed his walker for support. For a full hour, teammates, friends, and staffers hugged and welcomed him back. They were so happy to see him alive. Joy, laughter and even tears, greeted Dennis. 

Mentoring young musicians always played a huge part in Rowland’s life. In 2011, he began teaching one-on-one vocal lessons at Scottsdale Community College. Music Department Chair Christine Novak created a new class series, Jazz and Pop Vocals, to take advantage of Rowland’s expertise. Knowing how much he cherished teaching, Novak saved his place until he could return, hoping this would be something Rowland could work towards. He only missed one semester of teaching and returned to his students in Fall 2013.

Rowland is one of three finalists for Arizona’s 2017 Governor’s Arts Individual Artist Award. As Joel Goldenthal, executive director of The Nash wrote in his recommendation letter, “Arizona has revered Dennis as a vocalist, actor and teacher for more than three decades.”

At this point, in 2017, Dennis is making an astonishing recovery. He may not be 100%, but he is singing, playing basketball and mentoring students, thanks to Sydney, his musical family, basketball peers and countless fans.

“I had to get back to singing. I had to get on it,” said Rowland. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen but I knew I was going to be on the stage somewhere, at some point."