Kyle Jensen / The Record — DjangoFest Northwest patrons, including guitarists and a saxophonist, meet for an improvised “djam” session in front of Useless Bay Coffee Company Thursday evening.

Gypsy jazz takes over the Village by the Sea

A stroll through downtown Langley this weekend could be a sensory overload.

People with guitars strapped to their backs, a few with European accents, have taken over the town. The warm and playful sound of violins, oboes and quick guitar strumming has filled the air.

DjangoFest Northwest 2017 is in full swing.

“With DjangoFest, you have the ability to hear artists that you otherwise would have no chance of hearing west of the Atlantic,” Troy Chapman, guitarist for South Whidbey-based Hot Club of Troy, said. “Here are some of the top musicians in this style of music in the world right here in your backyard.”

The 17th annual DjangoFest Northwest kicked off Wednesday as musicians from far and wide began to flood South Whidbey. The music festival, which is an ode to the gypsy jazz style pioneered by Belgian-born Romani guitar legend Django Reinhardt, has grown to be known as one of North America’s premier gypsy jazz festivals. Its status as a top destination for the genre has led to acts from The Netherlands, France, Finland and elsewhere make the trip to the island. American acts, including bands with Whidbey roots such as Hot Club of Troy and EVM All Stars, will also take the stage.

DjangoFest Northwest isn’t all about the nighttime concerts at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA). Many of the performing artists host workshops on the gypsy jazz style that are open to other musicians and fans. Workshops can range from anything from “the Dutch style” to pick technique, and cost $50.

Chock full of concerts at WICA that run through Sunday night, the festival also inspires impromptu musical performances outside of the planned schedule. To spot the “djam sessions,” as they’re called, all it takes is a cruise through town with the windows rolled down. Passersby will likely hear the bouncing sound of strummed guitars all over downtown, and Chapman says it’ll only crank up during the weekend.

“The jam sessions are what make the festival,” Emmett Mahoney, a guitarist from Honolulu, Hawaii, said. “If a festival like this doesn’t include this jam scene, it’s just not the same. You also have the chance to play with some of the great musicians in the genre, if you’re lucky.”

Musicians, whether they’re performing artists or here to enjoy the festival, tend to spend the day gathering in public places in downtown Langley. If a group spots someone carrying an instrument, they’ll likely find a public place to whip out instruments for an improvised jam. While it may be the first time they’ve met, let alone played with each other, many of the gypsy jazz artists are already familiar with the crowd. For most, this isn’t their first rodeo.

DjangoFest has become somewhat of an annual reunion to them.

“There are a bunch of people I’ve known from the very beginning of the festival that come back year after year,” Chapman said. “It’s like a big family reunion. I won’t see my friends Dwight and Michael since last September, but when we met up this week it’s like no time passed at all.”

Stacie Burgua, executive director of WICA, says DjangoFest Northwest has been a massive success story from its humble beginnings. It started out as a tiny festival with two days of concerts, and the “djam sessions” weren’t yet a regular quirk. But by the second year, the impromptu sessions were springing up around town left and right and overall attendance spiked.

Burgua says she realized just how much the festival could grow after only a few years. She wasn’t wrong about the potential popularity. It’s grown into one of Langley’s top annual events, she said, and has put Langley and Whidbey Island on the map for many of its performers from around the world.

“People from Europe and around the world think of going to little Whidbey Island when they come to the U.S.,” Burgua said. “They see it in more of a global sense. DjangoFest Northwest has pretty much for Whidbey Island and Langley on the map for them.”

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Members of Honolulu-based gypsy jazz band Gypsy808, including Emmett Mahoney (left), Norm Foster (center right) and Joseph Zayac (right) play an impromptu session with a Portland-based violinist at South Whidbey Commons.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Seattle-based Good Company kick off the festival Wednesday evening with a free patio performance.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Festivalgoers with guitars on their backs look to join a “djam” session at Useless Bay Coffee Company Thursday evening.