She knew him when

By Deborah Mitchell Contributing Columnist

February 21, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, Terry Teachout posted on Facebook that his play is going to open off Broadway on March 4. I am basking in reflected glory, because when Terry and I were students at William Jewell, I knew that someday I would be able to say, “I knew him when …”

That time has come. I knew Terry Teachout when he didn’t know what to do with his life. And that should give everyone hope.

Terry is from Sikeston, and I met him when we were in the same music classes — not, thank heaven, classes where my composing skills were measured against his. I would have come up short. No, Terry and I were in choir and band together, and in music history and music appreciation together. That meant we enjoyed the fun stuff that didn’t require much work.

One semester, he and I worked together in Jewell’s jazz band. Terry played bass and I filled in for the regular pianist while he went with a group to Harlaxton, England. This was in the day of long hair and loud music, and I remember Terry’s thick, shiny brown locks shimmering in time to the music. Every time the music required a loud bass line, Terry played it joyfully and, most important, perfectly, improvising at will and hitting all the right notes and rhythms.

It turned out that Terry had played the bass for a country and western band from Sikeston beginning when he was in high school, and they had toured throughout Southeast Missouri, so he was already more skilled and experienced than everybody else in the band.

It also turned out he was a gifted pianist. He had listened to his parents’ ’78s (old, big records from way back when) when he was just a child, and his incredibly brilliant mind allowed him to memorize all the music and then replicate it on the piano. I heard him playing one day and recognized the song as one my father lauded as one of the greats from the 1940s. I started singing the lyrics, and the next thing I knew, Terry and I had tape recorded several songs by Noel Coward and the Gershwin brothers. He taught me songs I had heard of but didn’t know and he taught me vocal phrasing, all without music.

After I graduated, I stayed in touch with Terry; he graduated a couple of years later, and, because he had no idea what he wanted to do with his formidable intellect and spectacular musical ability, he began working as a bank teller in downtown Kansas City, playing music with local bands, and writing music reviews for the Kansas City Star. He continued on that path for a few years, deciding to do something else only after the bank was robbed one day by criminals pointing guns.

For a while, he went to graduate school to obtain a degree in counseling, but that wasn’t right for him either. One day, out of the blue, he got a call from some sort of editor at Harper’s Magazine, someone he had known. That smart editor asked Terry to come work for the magazine, and he did. The rest is history.

No longer playing music, Terry has now written several books, the first of which is his autobiography and the latest one a biography of Duke Ellington. He has written the book (lyrics) for two operas; he has written for the Congressional Record and for Time Magazine. He is now the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal and he travels to regional theaters all over the country to review their productions as well as those in New York, where he and his wife live.

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” will open soon, which Terry adapted from his biography of Louis Armstrong, entitled “Pops.” I want so badly to go to see the play and to tell him that I am proud of him, but that I also am cognizant that my claim to fame in this life is that Terry Teachout and I went to college together — and he liked ME! I knew him when.