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Remembering Dr. Ragtime: Guitarist Jack Rose

Guitarist 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 Rose died suddenly in December at age 38. The last record he completed, Luck in the Valley, comes out next week.

Rose wasn't a flashy player, but there was nothing tentative about the way he approached his guitar. On stage, Rose's intensity was obvious, says his friend and fellow musician, Christopher Smith of the Philadelphia band Espers.

"He was very physical," Smith says. "He was all huffing and red, 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 — very beautiful, spiritual player."

Drawn From American Roots

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.

"A lot of people, when they view old-time music, they view it as gentle or nostalgic, which I don't get at all," Rose said. "It was totally bizarre-sounding to me, and messed-up."

I pointed out to him that he probably meant that as a compliment.

"Oh, yeah, that's what attracted me to it: the strangeness of it," Rose said.

Becoming Dr. Ragtime

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

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 guitar and went about re-learning the acoustic.

"I hadn't played finger-style for like 15 years," Rose said. "I knew if I was going to be any good at it, I'd have to not work and work on it exclusively. So when I got unemployment, I was getting a check every week. That afforded me the time to explore it and work on my skills, and become good at it."

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

"A lot of times, I wouldn't see him for a few months or a year. And it would be as though he'd learned an entire new vocabulary of techniques," Coley says. "For me, it was always a revelation to see him."

Taken Too Soon

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.

"I think Jack was kind of looking forward to, 'I'm not going to be a chef; I'm not going to work day jobs anymore,' " Jones says. "He and his wife had just bought a house. The career trajectory is what's so disheartening, because he'd worked so hard. And to have the rug get pulled out from him at this moment, all I can think is, I just hope he didn't even know it happened to him."

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

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.

"Occasionally, it could be a little maddening, but it was all fun," Baird says. "It was just because he loved music so much, and enjoyed that culture of records and one-upmanship."

A Perfectionist To The End

Rose would even try to one-up himself by recording the same tune on two or more albums if he thought he could do it better. He said ragtime tunes like "St. Louis Blues" were especially tough to pull off.

"Because you have to get the syncopation right, which is really hard," Rose said. "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. I had to totally change my way of playing. That's the great thing about music: You're always picking up new stuff, getting turned on, trying new things out.

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 those who might wonder, reporter Joel Rose and musician Jack Rose are not related.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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