DjangoFest Northwest: Immersing Langley in gypsy jazz

Band of Brothers Stochelo and Mozes Rosenberg perform with bassist Simon Planting at DjangoFest Northwest 2014 at the Langley Middle School auditorium

The sounds of plucked guitars, thrumming bass and tinny snare drums, plus accordions, piano and plenty of horns will wash over Langley as DjangoFest Northwest returns for its 15th year.

About 3,000 people were estimated to have attended the 2014 festival, with similar numbers expected next week over five days.

In all, 13 bands and performers will take the stage at the Langley Middle School auditorium. Festival mainstay Pearl Django of Tacoma, one of the first groups to ever perform at the first DjangoFest Northwest, will headline Saturday’s shows, along with Bireli Lagrene Gipsy Project and Hot Club of Detroit (which features Langley’s Troy Chapman).

While the concerts and workshops are what festival-goers pay for, perhaps the most unique attraction of the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts-organized festival is the impromptu jam (or djam) sessions that happen at city parks, cafe corners and anywhere with a little room, some seating and a place to play.

“You could meet somebody from the East Coast and start playing some Django tunes right away and you’ve got a new friend,” said Michael Grey, violinist of festival favorite Pearl Django.

Starting in the mornings and going until the evenings, gypsy jazz will rule the Village by the Sea. The musical style popularized by Django Reinhardt, who was of Romani or “gypsy” heritage, has been featured aplenty in pop culture, especially  in Woody Allen films such as “Sweet and Lowdown” and “Midnight in Paris.”

The weekend wraps up with DJam Parisienne, led by Max O’Rourke, a relative newcomer to the festival and a burgeoning young musician. O’Rourke, 19, will be presented with the festival’s Saga Award in recognition of being “an outstanding young musician in the genre of gypsy jazz.” Contributed image | Members of Pearl Django, a Tacoma-based gypsy jazz band, will return as one of the main performers Saturday, Sept. 26.

Speaking by phone Thursday after class at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, O’Rourke said this will be the first time he has performed a large show under his own name. It is his second time to Langley, after performing with another musician as the rhythm guitarist in 2014.

“It’s all happening kind of fast,” O’Rourke said.

“I think it’s quite an honor,” he added. “Looking at the list of names, like Quinn Bachand, Antoine Boyer, those are all people that I’ve looked up to. They’re all amazing musicians.”

Having played guitar since he was 6 years old, O’Rourke said he started like many a young picker-and-a-grinner, idolizing the more traditional rock legends. Names like Clapton, Hendrix, King and Page still ring loudly for O’Rourke, but it was Django that rang truest some six years ago when he first found gypsy jazz. Since then, that’s been his main musical style.

“It’s kind of a strange transition, but it happened,” O’Rourke said.

The technical challenge of playing gypsy jazz, with its relentless strumming and spitfire solos, has kept his interest since his early teenage years. That sentiment was shared by Grey who, not a guitarist himself, understood its allure.

“If you’re an acoustic guitarist, it’s one of the higher styles of music you can play,” Grey said. “It’s really got everything, there’s so much to learn.”

Playing gypsy jazz is more involved than learning “Kumbaya” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s rhythm and lead, progression and improvisation. And it takes dedication to master.

“If you like it, for whatever reason, and really want to do it, you have to spend a lot of time doing it,” O’Rourke said.

DjangoFest Northwest is expected to be a boon for business in Langley, too. Michaleen McGarry, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, said it’s one of the better events for spending in town and has already booked up most of the city’s rooms for rent.

“In Langley proper, right now I don’t know of any rooms available,” she said. “If somebody does, let me know.”

“It’s a welcome event,” McGarry added. “It wraps up the summer in a really positive way.”

Any visitors unable to purchase tickets need only follow their ears for the sound of strumming to find some jam sessions around town, where there will be plenty of room.