Lipton’s Journal/December 17, 1954/47

From Project Mailer

Spengler is a great writer.[1] His startling similarities are indeed similarities. More modestly I see the connection now between such things as jazz, bull-fighting and six-day bike races. Jazz is easy to understand once one has the key, but no one ever offers the key, and it is so simple. Instead of trying to understand the “beauty” of jazz, one should understand it as something which is constantly triumphing and failing. Particularly in modern jazz one notices how Brubeck and Desmond[2] off entirely on their own with nothing but their nervous systems to sustain them wander through jungles of invention with society continually ambushing them. So the excitement comes not from victory which is the pleasure of swing (more later) but from the effort merely to keep musically alive.

So Brubeck, for example, will to his horror discover that he has wandered into a musical cliché (society) and it is thrilling to see how he attempts to come out of it, how he takes the cliché, plays with it, investigates it, pulls it apart, attempts to put it together into something new (for in every cliché there is an ocean of truth once we truly look at it), and sometimes succeeds, and sometimes fails and can only go on having left his record of defeat at that particular moment.

That is why modern jazz despite its apparent lyricalness is truly cold, cold like important conversations or Henry James. It is cold and it is nervous and it is under tension, just as in a lunch between and editor and an author: each makes mistakes and successes, attempts to expand the successes and turn the errors into smaller errors or even successes, and when it is done one hardly knows what has happened and whether it has been for one’s good or for one’s bad, but an “experience” (a communication between the soul and the world) has taken place. It is also why I find classical possibly less exciting for that merely evokes the echo of a past “experience”—it is now part of society, one of the noblest parts of society perhaps, but still not of the soul. Only the echo of the composer’s soul remains. And besides it consists too entirely of triumphs rather than of life.


  1. Mailer read the two-volume masterwork The Decline of the West (1932) of Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) while overseas in World War II, and admired its sweeping exposition of world history, one that rejected a linear progressive view of social development in favor of a cyclical interpretation of the rise and fall of civilizations.
  2. Dave Brubeck (1920 – 2012), a composer and pianist, and Paul Desmond (1924 – 1977), a composer and saxophonist, were key figures in the West Coast cool jazz movement of the 1950s, playing together as members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet from 1951 – 1968.