On the late Terry Teachout (with a guest contribution by Heather Sessler)

The arts community was rocked yesterday by the sudden passing of critic/author/playwright Terry Teachout.

I’ll write more about his work in a moment, but first want to turn the DTM floor over to my buddy Heather Sessler, who kept me updated during Teachout’s long bout with a dying spouse and his surprising recent love. (When he wasn’t praising his favorite songs and movies, Teachout’s feed had something of an innocent, old-timey radio soap opera about it.)

Terry and I first met on Twitter more than four years ago. We instantly hit it off and began corresponding via long emails. I was nervous writing to him – me, a nobody in Portland, OR – Terry, an accomplished writer who seemingly knew everyone and everything, yet Terry was interested in me. He asked questions. He made me think about my answers. He took the time to listen to recordings from my junior recital and over many messages helped me choose tunes for my senior recital. He saw something special in me.

During a visit to NYC, I met Terry for Indian food near his home in Washington Heights. He was just as warm and kind in person as he was in his letters. That evening he sent me this note: 

We did stay in touch – through Hilary’s illness, my divorce, and big move to NYC. We reunited again at the Indian joint in early March 2020 just after Hilary’s transplant and before COVID shut everything down. We spoke of the future he and Hilary might have. I was hoping to meet her and get to know the person he loved with his whole being. After Hilary passed, I promised to come over and make him homemade chili and cornbread. The pandemic made a liar out of me and I am so sad that I’ll never have the chance.

Terry was generous, supportive, and made me think that I could be an artist. It is heartening to know that Terry was that kind of friend to so many people. We can grieve together knowing our lives are better because he cared.

As Heather suggests, it was not just on Heather who Terry bestowed kindness. The socials are full of people who have a similar story. Terry’s simple acts of friendship are a wonderful legacy.

The current political mood is very polarized, and just seems to get worse and worse — to the point where I fully expect that typing a sentence such as, “The current political mood is very polarized…” will get angry pushback online from people saying, “How dare you suggest our side bend to the evil Republican regime?”

Terry Teachout was an old-school Republican intellectual. His heroes included people like William F. Buckley and George Will, and never failed to mention that President Bush appointed him to the National Council on the Arts. (The blog post where he walks around the White House and reviews the art collection is quintessential Teachout.)

No one could ever say Terry Teachout wasn’t smart, and the sly dog rarely publicly spoke about his political beliefs. A 2008 article about Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama tips his hand very slightly, but the article is also simply correct in every particular: Teachout forecasts the coming schism with uncanny accuracy.

On a practical level, I was happy that Terry was a political conservative, for we need people that will argue for the arts when the conservatives control the board. On a local level, I was impressed with how he fought polarization by being sincere, polite, firmly traditional, and a stand-up gent. Online tributes have come in from hilarious/scandalous writer Chelsea G. Summers and hard-headed television avatar David Simon. To say that Summers and Simon rarely have a kind word for a conservative understates the matter! One up to the power of Teachout.

Teachout’s biographies covered Mencken, Balanchine, Louis Armstrong, and Ellington. He knew fiction and painting as well, but probably had the biggest impact as a drama critic. It is absolutely certain that losing Teachout is a true blow to regional theater, for Terry was one of the few visible NYC critics who traveled the country to see local productions.

Outside of drama, “middlebrow” may have been Teachout’s forte. His critiques of mid-century movies, music, and books that were both popular and sophisticated were full of pithy truth. I resonated with Teachout best on that middlebrow wavelength. The work of Rex Stout is a perfect example: When I wrote my pandemic-era overview of Stout, I quoted him in the piece and sent it along for him to look it over before it went live. Similarly, Mel Powell’s jazz piano was middlebrow, and my own essay on the larger career of Powell was literally a return serve to an old Teachout essay in the New York Times.

I met Terry over two decades ago when he wrote about Mark Morris. Frankly, I was surprised that someone working as dance critic knew anything about jazz. We kept in touch, and his blog About Last Night was a direct inspiration when starting Do the Math.

I liked Terry, appreciated his perspective, but also felt I owed him a favor. His 2000 profile of Morris put me on the cover of Sunday Arts in the New York Times. (Picks up phone and calls home: “Hey, Mom? Drive to Eau Claire tomorrow and get the New York Times.”) He also advised me on prose issues when I first started trying to write criticism. So, when I heard that Terry was releasing a book on Duke Ellington, I figured it was time to interview Terry for DTM.

But, after setting up the interview, it turned out I didn’t love Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Indeed, I wondered if I would be dishonoring my ancestors if I gave the book positive press. It was a kind of a personal crisis: I literally fell ill with a flu that wouldn’t go away. Finally, somewhat in desperation, I wrote a rebuttal to the biography, “Reverential Gesture.” Immediately my body healed and I was fit as a fiddle.

I figured springing my essay on Terry would be unfair, so I sent it along for comments. He corrected a few things and said, “Go get ’em, tiger.” The interview and my rebuttal ran side by side.

I had hoped my public disagreements with Terry would end there, but, to my dismay, I disliked his play Satchmo at the Waldorf even more than the Ellington book. Should I really keep on this thread? I couldn’t help myself, and spent an afternoon with my books putting together putting together another contra-Teachout screed, “Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.”

In the end, I think Terry overstepped his bounds when dealing with black music, a common-enough mistake for his generation and social circle. Perhaps he treated Armstrong, Ellington, and Miles as middlebrow. However, they aren’t middlebrow. If you take on those masters, you need to bring your A-game and dig deep.

Having landed two blows, I expected Terry to drop me as friend and associate. Incredibly, he just stayed the same warm self. Especially on Twitter, he constantly signal-boosted my work. After Trump was elected, I felt a chill deep in my bones and abruptly quit interacting with anyone I regarded as conservative. Terry didn’t change, so in time I circled back and sent him further things for input.

I try not to make enemies, but stuff happens. If you have visible opinions in the world, conflict is unavoidable. After hearing of Terry’s death, I pondered his vast skill in staying above the fray and connecting people through kindness and friendship. There is definitely a lesson to be learned from Terry’s seemingly effortless and graceful deportment. I never told him I admired him for those reasons, but I wish I had.