It’s that time of year again when an international collection of musicians takes over Langley, but it’s not only off-islanders who will be strumming their guitars on stage and in café corners.
DjangoFest Northwest has brought members and fans of the gypsy jazz community from across the globe to Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA) for 16 years. It’s grown to become one of the premier gypsy jazz festivals honoring the legendary three-fingered French guitarist Django Reinhardt in North America, and it’s right here in our backyards. And it has left its mark on South Whidbey’s music scene.
“DjangoFest has definitely helped create a small gypsy jazz scene here on South Whidbey,” Stacie Burgua, Executive Director of WICA said. “DjangoFest meant nothing to locals at first. It was slow to catch on, but now you see a lot of locals getting involved.”
After years of unleashing top international talent in Langley, the fast paced, joyful and dance-inducing music has crept into the consciousness of South Whidbey musicians. Younger crowds have been attending, according to Burgua, and local acts are penciled into the lineup. She says the festival is getting kids interested in the style of music, and that’s evident in one of this year’s performers: South Whidbey’s own Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews.
Vanderbilt-Mathews grew up attending DjangoFest Northwest as a kid before honing his skills in high school jazz band. The swing and bounce of gypsy jazz caught his attention from a young age, and soon enough he was finagling his way into the festival’s late night jam sessions to rub elbows with international talent.
“I’ve been going to DjangoFest almost my entire life, both as a kid and a volunteer for several years,” Vanderbilt-Mathews said. “When I was volunteering, I would play with the musicians at night. I would sneak into the jams and play, and one day the festival organizer asked if I wanted to be part of the festival. It’s amazing to go from volunteering to playing.”
The South Whidbey High School graduate will take the stage Thursday evening with Seattle’s Ranger and the Re-Arrangers, playing the clarinet and saxophone. Traditionally more of a blues and modern jazz player, he said he is beginning to play gypsy jazz more as he further appreciates how real and spontaneous the genre is.
DjangoFest played a massive part in Vanderbilt-Mathews’ interest in gypsy jazz, and he’s not alone. He said there are “quite a few guitarists” from the island who were introduced to the finger shredding style at the festival before it became their primary genre. It helps to have a local guru spread the knowledge, and South Whidbey has that in another performer, Troy Chapman.
“Troy is kind of the Whidbey legend,” Vanderbilt-Mathews said. “He’s been doing it for a long time.”
Chapman is the founder and lead guitarist for Langley’s Hot Club of Troy, a three piece band with two guitars and a stand-up bass, and is a DjangoFest regular. He’s played nearly every year since its inception, and was introduced to Seattle’s Pearl Django during the first festival in 2000. Chapman was enamored, attended a few “djam sessions” and eventually went on to join the band. He left the band earlier this year after a six-year stint, but hasn’t shifted his focus from the genre as he continues the tradition with Hot Club of Troy.
“I discovered Django Reinhardt when I was a teenager,” Chapman said. “I thought it was just awesome, so I got my hands on a book of Django solos and that was that. It was hard to find others interested in this kind of music in the ‘80s and ’90s, but now there’s definitely a gypsy jazz community here that I’m a part of.”
The after hour “djam sessions” are largely what turns Whidbey musicians onto gypsy jazz, Chapman and Vanderbilt-Mathews said. Chapman said outside the official festival lineup, the jamming is “continuous,” and what brings a good chunk of the crowd to Langley for the week. Gypsy jazz players from around the country, who he said may struggle to find others to jam like gypsies with, come to Langley to join the musical party.
The “djam sessions” illustrate what the genre is all about — creating an all-inclusive, freestyle circle of musicians figuring it out as the sounds swing and bounce long into the night. The sessions give local musicians a chance to hop into the circle and play alongside traveling fans and buskers, and they’ve played a large part in both Chapman and Vanderbilt-Mathews’ musical careers. And now that the festival has become heavily attended by locals, that means more South Whidbey musicians are joining the circle much like the two South Enders in this year’s lineup.
The sessions aren’t advertised online, but are typically held in public gathering spaces around Langley.
“I would credit much of my career in gypsy jazz to DjangoFest,” Chapman said. “A lot of it came down to years of hard work, but DjangoFest has been really important to my career.”