DjangoFest NorthWest Puts The Swing Into Whidbey Island

Jamming around beautiful Langley on Whidbey Island is one of the highlights of DjangoFest NorthWest.
Jamming around beautiful Langley on Whidbey Island is one of the highlights of DjangoFest NorthWest.

It’s September 2023 and the DjangoFest NorthWest in Langley on USA’s Whidbey Island is in full swing. And I do mean swing. This is Swing 23.

The whole town is pulsating with the rhythm of gypsy jazz and the music of Django Reinhardt. It’s 70 years since Django Reinhardt died, but his legacy has lived on, and his music is probably more popular now than it was when he was alive. It’s a worldwide phenomenon that brings people together from around the globe.

Langley is a small town with plenty of heart on the southern end of Whidbey Island and whose population of around 2,000 probably doubles during DjangoFest NorthWest. Held every September for the last 23 years, it is hosted by the Whidbey Island Centre for the Arts (WICA).

WICA is ideal for gypsy jazz music: the amphitheatre-style seating gives a clear view of the musicians from anywhere and the acoustics are superb. WICA includes the festival lounge with a bar selling cocktails, local wines and beers, with a great range of CDs and merchandise on offer. In the lounge you can mingle with the performers who are usually jamming together. Before every concert, a band performs in the free covered outdoor area.

Whidbey Island Centre for the Arts (WICA) has hosted DjangoFest NorthWest since 2000.
Whidbey Island Centre for the Arts (WICA) has hosted DjangoFest NorthWest since 2000.

This year in the outdoor area for the opening party, the band was Café Impromptu, an all-female band founded by bassist Kristi O’Donnell. Café Impromptu is more than just a band, it’s a place where women can come together and play jazz in a friendly and welcoming environment. The line-up changes with each venue, but the music is sensational, no matter when or where they’re playing.

One of the really impressive aspects of DjangoFest NorthWest is the jamming that occurs all around town. There are various locations, including some of Whidbey’s bars and cafés, where musicians just turn up at random and play. Anyone is welcome to join the jams — experienced performers as well as amateurs and those wanting to learn by playing with more accomplished musicians. It was surprising who kept popping up in the jams. I actually felt a bit conspicuous wandering around town without a guitar case or a violin case.

DjangoFest NorthWest on Whidbey Island
One of the jam sessions where everyone is welcome to join in.

This is a festival that is embraced by the whole town and the island with many locals acting as volunteers. DjangoFest has built up a following across the United States and beyond, in large part due to the friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

The festival runs a daily workshop schedule with classes in gypsy guitar and violin, and every evening after the performances, there was a jam at Fiddle-Faddle Farm behind the nearby fairgrounds open for campers attending the festival. Even if you can’t get tickets to many of the concerts, there are plenty of opportunities to be immersed in the music all around town where everyone is up for a chat.

DjangoFest NorthWest on Whidbey Island
Café Impromptu entertained at various venues include the brand new Double Bluff brewery.

Here is a brief review of some of the performances we attended:

Rhythm Future

Taking their name from a Django Reinhardt tune, this band is impressive for their originality and skilful interpretations of the gypsy jazz style. Band leader and violinist Jason Annick and bassist Greg Loughman are responsible for some of their original compositions; the haunting Iberian Sunrise was a standout. The quartet is rounded out by two young up-and-coming guitarists, Henry Acker and Max O’Rourke.


I was blown away by the innovation of this band – a real revelation. They take their name from Django Reinhardt‘s famous wartime tune that became a defacto French national anthem when La Marseillaise was banned by the Nazis. Led by Michael-Paul Gurulé, the line-up includes sax and mandolin, not normally associated with gypsy jazz. They are a fascinating example of how the style can be adapted and developed.

DjangoFest NorthWest on Whidbey Island
More jamming, this time at Common Grounds in Langley.

The Duved Dunayevsky Quintet

These guys really captured the 1930s style of the Quintette du Hot Club de France with the very dapper Duved dressed to evoke the spirit of the period. For my money, Duved along with Daniel Garlitsky on violin, were the quintessential Django and Stéphane. This swinging quintet was rounded out by Jennie Kong Mayer and Jess Richter on guitar and Patrick Harry on bass.

The Paulus Schafer Quartet

Paulus is a Dutch Sinti gypsy, regarded by many as one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation. I could only marvel at his technique. Along with the acclaimed Tim Kliphuis on violin, Jimmy Grant on guitar, and Simon Planting on bass, this headline performance was the festival highlight. As artistic director for DjangoFest Northwest, Simon Planting is integral to the festival’s continued success. He is also a very talented bass player, who not only acted as MC for the event and performed with the Paulus Schafer Quartet, but played with Bina Couquet as well. The Paulus Schafer Quartet concert was made all the more entertaining by some of Tim‘s original compositions, combining classical and folk with gypsy jazz. Tim’s rendition of Earth from his suite, The Five Elements, was phenomenal.

Bina Couquet 3 had great fun performing their unique style of gypsy jazz.
Bina Couquet 3 had great fun performing their unique style of gypsy jazz.

Bina Couquet 3 featuring Florian Cristea

Wow! Gypsy jazz goes Brazilian. Florian Cristea is originally from Romania but lives and plays in São Paulo. This performance was something different, and these guys really had fun. As a matter of fact, for serious musicians, they were very funny. Guitarist Jose Fernando Seifarth has a day job and is in fact a judge. He joked that when he’s not playing music his role is to keep the others out of jail.

The finale for the festival was the jam on Sunday night, billed as the Nick Lehr Memorial Festival Performer Djam and featuring all the artists on stage. This was nothing short of sensational and exemplified the ethos and spirit of a form of music that warms the heart and feeds the soul.

DjangoFest NorthWest on Whidbey Island

DjangoFest NorthWest is so much more than a series of concerts over five days. It is an experience that reinforces a love for gypsy jazz and a feeling of friendship with like-minded people. Yes, Django Reinhardt (just like Joe Hill) is not dead. He lives on in the music and hearts of many people around the world and particularly on Whidbey Island.

With thanks to Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands for supporting our attendance at DjangoFest NorthWest ’23. It was a privilege to experience this beautiful part of the United States’ Pacific Northwest.

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