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Cultural critic Terry Teachout is remembered as 'unafraid of being human in public'

Critic Terry Teachout in 2014 in New York.
Daniel Zuchnik
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WireImage/Getty Images
Critic Terry Teachout in 2014 in New York.

One of the great cultural critics of the past half-century has died. Terry Teachout was an acclaimed author, a jazz connoisseur, a dance scholar and a drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. The paper reported that Teachout died on Thursday at a friend's home in Smithtown, N.Y. He was 65 years old.

A genial, cosmopolitan writer with a learned but accessible style, Teachout was born and raised near Missouri's bootheel, in the southeast part of the state. He remembered growing up as the musical-theater-loving son of a hardware salesman in his 1991 memoir, City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy.

Sailing off to the East Coast to begin his liberal arts education, Teachout soon found undergraduate life at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., too stressful and himself, in his own words, too immature. He returned "to do the rest of my growing up under the watchful gaze of comforting, certain, all-knowing midwestern eyes," he wrote. He graduated from William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., in 1970, and scraped together a living as a bank teller in Kansas City, gigging as a jazz bassist and beginning to write jazz reviews.

Once Teachout finally made it to Manhattan, he enjoyed the status of both an insider and an outsider. He was both an editor at Harper's magazine and the founder of a salon for New York conservatives called Vile Body. And he steadily begin accruing bylines in the New York Daily News, Commentary and The Washington Post and NPR, and writing acclaimed biographies of H.L. Mencken, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and George Balanchine.

Nate Chinen, who writes about jazz for NPR, says he was dazzled by Teachout's breadth. "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 perceptiveness about so many art styles, forms and disciplines. And he did so with a real clarity of opinion."

"There was nobody around who also covered jazz, rock, pop, classical music, dance, ballet, film, books and any other medium that came along the way Terry did," Washington Post music critic Tim Page added in an email to NPR. "His tastes tended conservative but he could often be convinced and nobody was more cheerful about changing his mind. Above all, he was the sort of friend with whom you could have an argument that remained always within the bounds of love."

Teachout's more conservative opinions were not always popular among his fellow arts critics. "But he brought a real palpable genuine enthusiasm," Chinen recalls with affection. "And when you did disagree with Terry Teachout, he welcomed the exchange, the dialogue. Especially in our social media age, disagreement feels like combat, but Terry kept alive the spirit of critical discourse in an old Algonquin Round Table way. He really thrived on an exchange of ideas."

In his blog, About Last Night, on the website ArtsJournal.com, and on his lively Twitter feed, Teachout kept that exchange going. 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 pain over the 2020 death of his wife Hilary, and his shouting joy in a new relationship. Arts Twitter erupted in mourning upon news of his death.

He was "unafraid of being human in public," Chinen said. "That's why so many people are responding to his loss."

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