Ishmael Reed, through parody, allusion, and satire, manages to convey the meaning of Jes Grew without once explicitly defining it. There is a good reason why he
never defines it; Jes Grew has no true definition. Even those infected by this
?anti-plague? that evokes the jump, jive, and wail, do what you feel like spirit inside of
them, can?t put their finger on exactly what is ?this Jes Grew thing? (33). One cannot
explain Jes Grew without destroying its carefree feeling. Yet without ?finding its text,?
Jes Grew ?will peter out as in the 1890?s, when it wasn?t ready and had no where to
search? (34). Ironically, this set both pro and anti-Jes Grew advocates on an identical
path: to seek out its text. Apparently an inevitable outcome, this essay too will seek out
the implications of the sought after text and the exact meaning of that infectious fiction
which Reed so delicately tip-toed around.
Jes Grew at first glance reads as ?just grew.? Reed chose these words to give the
phenomenon a sense of emergence. What was not there yesterday has suddenly appeared
today because it just recently grew. What used to be the mundane, every day life of the
Negro is transformed into the enlivened carefree attitude of Jes Grew. The personal
freedom which had been burning inside the people is suddenly expelled and lived out as
if there was nothing to stand in their way. The ?irrepressible fancy? is to get up and
express themselves through music, dance, and ?the speaks? (154). The epidemic spreads
in a manner just as it exists, for as it pops up all over the country it evokes spontaneous
activity in its victims. Jes Grew acts as a drug to those infected by it, which causes them
to express themselves in otherwise unacceptable ways. ?The kids want to dance belly to
belly and cheek to cheek.... The kids want to Funky Butt while their elders prefer the
Waltz...? (21). And just as the deleterious effects of drugs destroy one?s ability to
contribute to the advancement of society, so does Jes Grew stagger the nation?s ability to
advance as a whole.
Akin to the bootlegging of the 1920?s, Jes Grew persists despite being outlawed.
Yet still the societal advocates attempt to stop the contagion. In one week ?16 people
have been fired from their jobs for manifesting symptoms of Jes Grew? (21). It is those
in charge, the white bosses and politicians, who feel threatened by the spontaneous
emergence of personal freedom. ?...Jes Grew is immune to the old remedies, the saving
Virus in the blood of Europe...? (18). The greater the enthusiasm for personal enjoyment,
the less achievement can be made towards modernity, and this is the trend which those in
charge looked to put an end to.
The sense of emergence conveyed in the interpretation ?just grew? identifies also
with the musical movement of the 1920?s. ?For if the Jazz Age is year for year the
Essences and Symptoms of the times, then Jes Grew is the germ making it rise yeast-like
across the American plain? (20). Previous musical styles had traditionally been such that
every note played was indicated on the sheet of music. However, jazz unleashed the art
of improvisation which allowed the music to transcend the dots and stems painted on the
page. ?Once we had ?ragged? words; now we ?jazzed up? everything? (115). Notes
merely served as a skeleton for the music to emerge from. James Weldon Johnson
described Jes Grew in terms of the music of the 1920?s. ?Its words were unprintable but
its tune irresistible? (211). Still indefinable, ?Jes Grew, the Something or Other that led
Charlie Parker to scale the Everests of the Chord. Riff fly skid dip soar and gave his Alto
Godspeed? (211). Although set up by the forerunner of ragtime, jazz seemed to
spontaneously appear on the music scene as a marvel distinct from anything before. In
fact, Reed?s intention may have been for a second reading of the phrase to be ?just
groove.? This emergent form of...
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