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Remembering Dr. Ragtime: Guitarist Jack Rose

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Remembering Dr. Ragtime: Guitarist Jack Rose

Remembering Dr. Ragtime: Guitarist Jack Rose

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Jack Rose was a big man who coaxed a big sound from his acoustic guitar. Friends say he was just as vigorous when he wasn't playing. So it came as a shock when Jack Rose died suddenly in December at the age of 38. The last record he completed comes out next week. Reporter Joel Rose - no relation - has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE: Jack Rose wasn't a flashy player, but there was nothing tentative about the way he approached his guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: On stage, Rose's intensity was obvious, says his friend and fellow musician Christopher Smith of the Philadelphia band Espers.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER SMITH (Musician, Espers): He was very physical. He was all huffing and red and he was so on top of that instrument, just pulling it and bending it. He also had this amazing swing. He just knew how to swing and how to swagger, that was almost like the butter in the skillet a very beautiful, spiritual player.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Rose's music incorporated a range of styles, including minimalism and Indian ragas. But mostly he drew on American blues, country and ragtime. In an interview five years ago, Rose told me he had a special fondness for anything recorded before WWII.

Mr. JACK ROSE (Musician): A lot of people, when they view old-time music, they view it as gentle or, like, nostalgic, which I don't get at all. It just sounded weird. It was totally bizarre-sounding to me and messed-up.

ROSE: I should point out that you probably meant that as a compliment.

Mr. ROSE: Oh, yeah. That's what attracted me to it, you know, just the strangeness of it.

ROSE: Jack Rose started playing acoustic guitar as a teenager in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He especially liked the finger picking of Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White. But Rose switched to electric guitar in high school, after a guitar teacher told him, quote, "That's where the money is." As if to prove him wrong, Rose joined a drone-rock band called Pelt.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Rose moved to Philadelphia in 1998. He worked a series of day jobs at record stores and restaurants. He'd been listening to John Fahey, the father of the American Primitive school of acoustic guitar music. So, pushing 30, Rose sold his electric guitars and went to work re-learning the acoustic.

Mr. ROSE: I hadn't played finger-style for like 15 years. So I knew if I was going to be any good at it, I'd have to not work and just work on that exclusively. And so when I got unemployment, you know, I was getting a check every week, so you know, that afforded me the time to really explore it and work on my skills and become good at it.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: It didn't take long for Rose to get better, says music journalist Byron Coley, who knew him for 15 years.

Mr. BYRON COLEY (Music Journalist): A lot of times I wouldn't see him for a period of a few months or a year. And it would be as though he'd learned an entire new vocabulary of techniques. For me, it was always a revelation to see him.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: After a decade of touring and recording for small labels, Rose had finally achieved enough success to quit his day job. Last year, he signed with Thrill Jockey Records, a prominent independent label. But Rose died of a heart attack in December two months before the release of "Luck in the Valley," his first record for his new label. Rose's friend and fellow guitarist Glenn Jones says that's what makes the timing of his death seem so cruel.

Mr. GLENN JONES (Guitarist): I think Jack was really kind of looking forward to like, I'm not going to have to be a chef; I'm not going to have to work day jobs anymore. He and his wife had just bought a house. And the career trajectory, I think, is the thing that is so disheartening, because he'd worked so hard. And to have the rug kind of get pulled out from under him at this moment is just, you know, all I can think is I just hope he doesn't even know it happened to him.

ROSE: Jones was one of dozens of friends and collaborators who paid tribute to Rose at a memorial concert in Philadelphia that was to have been a record release party.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Glenn Jones remembers many late nights talking about music with Rose, who was a voracious record collector. So does singer and guitarist Meg Baird. She says Rose was a man of strong opinions.

Ms. MEG BAIRD (Singer, Guitarist): Occasionally, it could be a little maddening, but it was all fun. It was just because he, you know, loved music so much and enjoyed that culture of, like, records and one-upmanship.

ROSE: Rose would even try to one-up himself, recording the same tune on two or more albums if he thought he could do it better.

(Soundbite of song, "St. Louis Blues")

ROSE: Jack Rose said ragtime tunes like "St. Louis Blues" were especially tough to pull off.

(Soundbite of song, "St. Louis Blues")

Mr. ROSE: You have to get the syncopation right, which is really hard. You have to hear where the beats are. It took me years to even figure that out, even after I recorded a couple of records. And I realized I was doing it wrong. So I had to, like, totally change my way of playing. That's the great thing about music: You're always picking up new stuff and getting turned on and trying new things out.

ROSE: Rose was constantly turning other people on to new stuff too. After our interview, we talked about an anthology of prewar gospel music that he owned and I didn't. The next time I saw him, Rose handed me six homemade CDRs. It was a small gesture, but it may help explain why Jack Rose made such a big impression on those who knew him.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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