Dennis Rollins: Ska, Funk, and all that jazz

Image Credit: Gary Brown

Trombonist Dennis Rollins speaks to Jasmine Tyagi about his rip-roaring journey through the world of funky jazz – including a jam with Prince – ahead of his appearance at Wiltshire Music Centre on 1 June.

I got the old beat up trombone. That’s really where the passion started”. Jazz musician Dennis Rollins is telling me what started his passion for music. The instrument that he inherited from his brother wasn’t your classic pile of hand-me-down clothes children are forced to begrudgingly wear. This old trombone became the catalyst for his incredible career as a jazz musician.

For the last 25 years, Rollins has played with some of the greatest musicians in the funk and jazz world, such as Jamiroquai, Brand New Heavies and Courtney Pine, to name just a few. He’s also scooped multiple awards – ranging from the prestigious BBC Jazz Award in the Best Band category in 2006, Trombonist of the Year at the British Jazz Awards and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Awards in 2007, to most recently being awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2022. Rollins proves to be a man of great talent.

The first band Rollins formed was called Dee Roe, though he then went on to work with and create many more, such as Boneyard (which included nine trombones, a sousaphone and a drum kit), as well as more recently FUNKY-FUNK! (this name was a song from his first album Badbone) and Velocity Trio. The musician has and continues to apply different styles of jazz to every project. At Wiltshire Music Centre Rollins is bringing his FUNKY-FUNK! band, a name chosen to represent the band’s energy.

Where it all began
Growing up watching his brother play the trombone with friends, and then with the Doncaster Jazz Association, sparked something within Rollins; that “sibling rivalry made me think, ‘I can do that’ ”. It just so happens this fierce but friendly sibling competitiveness became the driving force for Rollins’ great success. Fast forward a few years and he would even find himself jamming with Prince after supporting him in concert with Maceo Parker’s band, an experience he “wouldn’t say is life-changing, but it’s pretty much up there”. ­­

The master trombonist’s passion stemmed from other elements too – being of Jamaican heritage Rollins grew up listening to a lot of reggae and ska music. He says: “I wasn’t directly listening to pure jazz”. How then could these two completely different genres have inspired his passion for jazz? It becomes clear that it was his musical mind which enabled him to pluck out elements in songs synonymous with the jazz genre: “There’s a lot of inflections of jazz truly flowing through the roots of the music… it was sort of an experience ‘through the back door’ around how jazz influenced me.”

From the age of 14, Rollins’ passion for jazz was already engrained. He joined Doncaster Youth Jazz Association, just like his brother, but then left the “small mining town” he knew and grew up in and moved to The Smoke (that’s London). When Rollins moved to the city in 1987 the music scene was booming with vibrancy and energy. Rollins says this was the place you wanted to be, otherwise “you were just a young player or musician in the suburbs… You had to have that 01’ telephone number, so people knew you were in London and could call you for work there.”

He instantly fell for London, and the incredible musical experiences that came with it. For him, London in the early ’90s was “a melting point of many different cultures that brought different music from around the world… there were the crossing of cultures, the meeting of minds with musicians, and the melting of styles.” No wonder the ’90s created a platform for the music scene like no other… booming, spirited and pumping out some of the greatest artists of all time.

There were the crossing of cultures, the meeting of minds with musicians, and the melting of styles”

Rollins’ trajectory in funk began when “playing with Jamiroquai and Brand New Heavies, under the banner of acid jazz.” Acid jazz is the perfect example of the city’s musical melting pot, with injections of hip hop, disco, soul, funk and jazz in the mix.

“There was a lot of excitement… you had to just jump straight in.” So, it’s no surprise then that amid this sea of styles and cultures the gem of Rollins’ talent washed ashore.

Image Credit: Addictive TV


Patience and compassion
Rollins admits he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help of his talented teachers. Their skills and motivation led him to success, something he wants to pass on to the students he teaches. He says the most important thing to do is “project the feeling of joy through music, and show what music can bring”.

Through the years in his profession, Rollins reflects what he once absorbed from his teachers, and that is patience, compassion, “and to just generally enthuse our youngsters, because there’s a whole world of music. Even if their choice isn’t to be a musician in their later life, music is something you can carry alongside any career.” Rollins aspires to pass his passion on to youngsters through an educational trombone website. His approach includes the blurring of boundaries between ages and levels reminiscent of the ’90s music scene, applying this attitude towards learning music and developing “a funk community”.

“Education is my passion right now,” Rollins states. “There is a real groundswell of trombone players wanting to learn about funk music, and about the articulation of funk, or how the style is played and asking, ‘How do you bend a note like that?’ So, I have put together a whole bunch of courses and exercises.” Vital skills Rollins has learnt from his youth may have followed him through to his own career, but he is still learning. “The thing about playing with other performers is that you learn when not to play.”

Rollins breaks this idea down for us. “The key is to imagine you are having a conversation, but instead you’re playing music with other musicians”, he explains. You need to “stand back and learn the lesson to allow others to speak. When you’re at a jam or performing with other musicians, it is a really important musical lesson at any level – let the music flow the same way when you’re chatting to somebody, and most importantly, listen to one another.”

It is this technique that Rollins says will enhance musical skills, as people pick up small things other musicians use and play. (I imagine it’s like when you hear someone say a fancy word and you mentally note it down so you, too, can sound just as eloquent.)
I asked Rollins what his most memorable performance has been throughout his career. “Wow. That is a big question. I can’t think of any one in particular.” Whoops, didn’t mean to stump him with this one. After some thought, he says: “Since I put together the Velocity Trio – that’s the drums, the organ and trombone – there is a sense of freedom in performance that this particular ensemble brings”.

There is a real groundswell of trombone players wanting to learn about funk music”

Rollins describes performing with this trio as if it is like no other. “I can take my performance in any direction, and at the same time the connection I have with the other two musicians can go in any direction too, musically, and meet at any given point”.

I asked Dennis how does he feel about playing at The Wiltshire Music Centre. “I love it. I have played there four or five times with various projects, so I’ve had great experiences already in the region”. Dennis explains, “When I play there with FUNKY FUNK! I see my responsibility as presenting this music as a joyous celebration, at the same time demonstrating its influence and connectivity to the many music styles.”

There is no doubt that those attending the Wiltshire Music Festival are in for a treat. Rollins feels very fondly towards the audience it always attracts and says, “that region is a beautiful part of the country and the audience are very informed and culturally aware of the different flavours and approaches to music. I’m looking forward to being there again.”

Rollins will be appearing at the Bradford on Avon Live Music Festival at Wiltshire Music Centre on 1 June at 7.30pm. Tickets can be booked online via wiltshiremusic.org.uk; dennisrollins.com.