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One of the great cultural critics of the past half-century has passed away. Terry Teachout was an acclaimed author, jazz connoisseur, dance scholar and theater critic for the the wall street journal. The newspaper reported that Teachout died Thursday at a friend’s home in Smithtown, NY. He was 65 years old.
A genial, cosmopolitan writer with a scholarly yet approachable style, Teachout was born and raised near Booteel, Missouri, in the southeast corner of the state. In his 1991 memoir, he recalled growing up as a musical-loving son and a hardware salesman. City Limits: Memories of a Small Town Boy.
Sailing to the East Coast to begin his liberal arts studies, Teachout soon found undergraduate life at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, too stressful and himself, in his own words, too immature. He returned “to do the rest of my growth under the watchful gaze of comforting, certain and all-knowing Midwestern eyes,” he wrote. He graduated from William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., in 1970, and made a living as a bank teller in Kansas City, playing as a jazz bassist and beginning to write jazz reviews.
Once Teachout finally arrived in Manhattan, he enjoyed both insider and outsider status. He was both editor at Harper’s magazine and the founder of a salon for New York curators called Vile Body. And he steadily began accumulating bylines in the New York Daily News, Remark and The Washington Post and NPR, and wrote acclaimed biographies of HL Mencken, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and George Balanchine.
Nate Chinen, who writes about jazz for NPR, says he was blown away by the scale of Teachout. “So many critics are specialists, and that’s where they get their authority,” he told NPR. “[Teachout] was able to write with authority, insight and insight on so many artistic styles, forms and disciplines. And he did it with real clarity of opinion.”
“There was no one around who also covered jazz, rock, pop, classical music, dance, ballet, film, books and whatever media Terry came with,” Washington Post music critic Tim Page added in an email to NPR. “His tastes were quite conservative but he was often persuaded and no one was more eager to change his mind. He was mostly the kind of friend you could have an argument with who always stayed in the limits of love.”
Teachout’s more conservative views were not always popular among his fellow art critics. “But he brought a real palpable genuine enthusiasm,” Chinen remembers fondly. “And when you disagree with Terry Teachout, he welcomed the exchange, the dialogue. Especially in our age of social media, disagreement feels like a fight, but Terry kept the spirit of the talk alive. criticism in the manner of an Algonquin round table. It really thrived on an exchange of ideas.”
In his blog, About Last Night, on ArtsJournal.com, and on his lively Twitter feed, Teachout maintained this exchange. Not only did Teachout write about literature, opera, politics, and his unexpected fandom of Steely Dan and avant-garde composer John Cage, he chronicled his grief over the death of his wife Hilary in 2020 and his glaring joy in a new relationship. Arts Twitter erupted in mourning at news of his death.
He was “not afraid to be human in public,” Chinen said. “That’s why so many people are reacting to his loss.”