A Tribute to Terry Teachout (1956-2022)
We've lost one of our finest critics—but he was much more than that for me
I’d like to tell you how I first met Terry Teachout—who left us yesterday at age 65. He was one of our finest and most erudite critics, and also a successful dramatist, but Terry was much more than that. He touched many people’s lives, and in ways that were often hidden from view.
Let me share my story.
Not long after I left grad school, I began hatching plans for my dream vocation as a jazz writer. But I had no idea how to do this.
I was living in the thick of Silicon Valley, far away from any literary community—I didn’t even know a single jazz writer. My entire output as a music critic consisted of reviews for my college newspaper, supplemented by a few contributions to local periodicals.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
At that juncture in my life, most of my time was consumed with a range of demanding projects for the Boston Consulting Group, then located on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. In my few spare hours, I was working on a secret project, my jazz book—but it was a very strange book.
I had started writing it the day after I’d finished my philosophy exams at Oxford, scribbling furiously while seated in the Bodleian Library, my brain still on overdrive from two years of immersion in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. As a result, the manuscript was teeming with the most bizarre ingredients. Everything from Wittgenstein to Fellini showed up in its pages—I was searching for large life-changing meanings in the music, even what you might call wisdom. But as I read through my various drafts, I knew I had violated almost every rule of music writing.
That was soon confirmed for me, when my roommate decided to show a chapter of my manuscript to his old fraternity buddy from Dartmouth, now working at Knopf. My mind reeled at the very name Knopf—they had just published Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for heaven’s sake. And their litany of authors included some of the greatest authors of the century. With some trepidation, I handed my roommate a typewritten chapter of the book that eventually became The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture.
It took a while before the verdict came back from New York. The old fraternity buddy had passed my chapter around the office, and had some people who knew about jazz take a look at it. His response was sharp and unforgiving, but only two sentences long. “We looked at this, but it isn’t real jazz writing. Your roommate should learn from what the other music writers are doing.”
I was crestfallen, but I can’t say I was surprised. I already knew that I was an odd duck. I had no illusions I was following in the path of other jazz journalists. Even so, I had been hoping for some words of encouragement.
That’s when I encountered Terry Teachout.
I had never met him. I didn’t even know his name. But on a lark, I sent a chapter of my crazy book—unsolicited and wrapped in a plain brown envelope—to the general office of Harper’s Magazine, one of the oldest of the old school smart journals, making pronouncements on society and culture since 1850.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t really think that my article would be accepted, or that I’d even get a response—at this point, I was just willing to play the lottery of cold submissions to unknown editors. Many of you know the drill.
But in this instance, I got a lovely letter back, filled with words of encouragement. It came from a man named Terry Teachout, who was doing editorial work at Harper’s at the time. Mr. Teachout told me that the strange essay I submitted was absolutely unsuitable for the magazine, but he was very impressed by the quality of my ideas and writing. He wanted to commission me to write a feature article for Harper’s Magazine—because he knew I had the talent to do something special.
I was blown away. A New York editor had taken notice of me. This had never happened before. And he wanted to commission me to write an article, just based on my potential?
Terry also wanted to speak with me on the phone. I’ll admit, I was nervous talking to a New York editor. But the call was inspiring, almost as much a pep talk as anything else.
I can’t emphasize how much this came from Terry’s generosity of spirit—I was a nobody, who would never have any occasion to return the favor or help him in any manner. He simply wanted to reach out to me, because he believed in me, and wanted to play a role in nurturing my development.
As it turned out, I never got to do that feature article. Terry had soon left Harper’s, and I was now relegated again to the slush pile. But there was a difference now. I had a deep inner sense that what I was doing might interest others, even New York editors.
A short while later, I got a publishing contract with Oxford University Press. And it happened the same way. I just sent in an unsolicited manuscript, and a lovely, visionary man named Sheldon Meyer decided he liked what I’d sent him. The book became a surprising success, and even won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. (When I learned about receiving that honor, the man who phoned me from ASCAP told me: “You have no idea how rare it is to get this award for your first book”—and that was true, but somehow the very strangeness of my manuscript was now a feature, not a flaw.)
But just to get to that point I needed an assist along the way. And it came from Terry Teachout.
I rarely saw Terry face-to-face in subsequent years. But when I made my first piano performance in New York, he went out of his way to attend, and gave me more words of encouragement. In other instances, he sweetly and obligingly helped me out when I needed assistance, with no thought of recompense. That was just how he operated.
Meanwhile I watched as Terry’s own writing career took off. He wrote about jazz with deep knowledge—I often steer people to his Louis Armstrong book as a great way of getting to know a master of the music. But he tackled every other subject in American culture: movies, books, theater, dance, classical music, you name it. He started writing for stage too, and with marked success. The last time I saw him was in Santa Fe, where the opera he wrote with composer Paul Moravec made its debut. His career seemed to know no limits—which was fitting, because that was true of Terry himself.
And he continued to help other people the same way he had helped me. Marc Myers, one of our finest jazz writers, wrote earlier today about how Terry launched him on his career. And I’ve heard similar stories from others.
That generosity of spirit also showed up in his writing. As drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, Terry could have easily focused on New York hits, but he was committed to promoting regional theater and lesser-known productions. That was just how he rolled. You could see a similar open-mindedness in his other essays, where he completely ignored the dividing line between highbrow and lowbrow art—even today a huge boundary line in our culture—merely praising what deserved to be praised, without the slightest dose of pretension or snobbishness.
I always appreciated that warmth and compassion, but again I was hardly surprised. I had experienced it myself.
Terry’s life had many tragedies. And he spoke about them openly in his writings and on social media. He wore his heart on his sleeve—a clichéd expression, but absolutely true in his case. I suspect he helped many people in this manner too. By broaching difficult subjects that others would keep private, he probably had a therapeutic impact on countless people who had never met him.
And now he’s gone, at just age 65. That’s a cause for genuine sadness and mourning. But even as I grieve, I also want to celebrate Terry’s life—and try to learn from it too. He not only was a great mentor, but a wonderful role model. He can’t be replaced, and I say that with all honesty, and not just as a glib statement. After all, how many critics are capable of covering the full scope of current and past culture with the discernment he brought to the endeavor? There aren’t many candidates for that job, to say the least. And that’s just the start of his resume.
But even if Terry has no obvious successors, he can continue to have an impact. And that’s especially true if we learn from his example of compassion, nurturing, and open-mindedness. I know that’s exactly how he would want it.