Clepper goes for DjangoFest jam, decides he needs practice

Posted in Festivals, More Stories, Music, Spotlight

Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
Sept. 18, 2013

“Anyone is welcome,” said the A-team musician to the C-string player, who had asked to participate in a jam session.

“It’s really irritating; people who don’t play Django style,” the A-teamer said later on. “There’s a certain expectation.”

I could tell very quickly that I didn’t meet those expectations, when I walked up to a jam circle that was already breaking up on Wednesday afternoon, the first day of DjangoFest Northwest. The five-day festival of gypsy jazz music began Wednesday and goes ’til Sunday, Sept. 22 at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley.

Russell Clepper at Django 2013_0168 (500x334)

The author goes over gypsy jazz chord progressions with Django-style aficiando Jerry Schneider of Colorado at a South Whidbey Commons jam in Langley. (All photos by David Welton)

“Bend your wrist if you want to play this kind of music,” the young hotshot guitarist said in a tone bordering on disdain, as he ambled off to hook up with a more accomplished player. The guy he had been playing with swept up his guitar case and took off quickly, before I could ask any more questions.

Fortunately for me, another older gypsy jazz aficionado was willing to sit with me for more than an hour, showing me chords and rhythm patterns and techniques. It was a lesson rather than a jam.

“This is the hardest music I’ve ever tried to learn,” said Jerry Schneider who came in from Boulder, Colo.

Russell Clepper at Django 2013_0141 (334x500)

DjangoFest fan Schneider left his flooded Boulder, Colo. neighborhood to come to the festival in Langley.

After Schneider patiently led me through the progressions on a couple of tunes, I could see that he was right. I won’t be joining any Django jazz jams unless I log a few hundred hours of practice first.

As Troy Chapman said, anyone is welcome, but you better know your stuff if you’re going to sit in on one of the many impromptu jams that spring up all over Langley during DjangoFest. Chapman, a Langley resident and a member of the Seattle jazz manouche group Pearl Django (performing at the festival Friday at 3 p.m.) is also one of the region’s prime expositors of the gypsy jazz genre.

Sitting down to one of these impromptu jams during DjangoFest, you might just find yourself playing alongside Stochelo Rosenberg or Angelo Debarre, a couple of the European world-renowned players with whom Chapman found himself trading licks the first time he sat in on a DjangoFest jam at the Doghouse Tavern in 2002.

There were about 20 players in all, as Chapman recalls, and that was the very first of the impromptu jams that have become such a signature feature of the Langley version of the festival.

That was the second year of the festival’s existence. Since then, DjangoFest has expanded, not only in importance on the national and international scene in the gypsy jazz world, but to many other cities and locations in the States, as well.

Russell Clepper at Django 2013_0206 (334x500)

Clepper said the Langley “Djams” don’t happen in other cities that hold DjangoFests.

However, I’m told the jam scene here in Langley is a unique phenomenon. It doesn’t happen in other cities that host the festival.

“The business community here embraced it from the beginning,” said Chapman.

“The layout and climate of Langley are conducive to jams,” Chapman added. “In other places you don’t have the opportunity to wander through town. Here, on any given night, who knows how many jams are going on?”

For local players, as well as for visitors who come to town to attend the festival, the jams have become an obvious attraction.

“They give you the opportunity to play with world class players,” Chapman said.

For non-musicians, locals and visitors, they provide exposure to the genre that folks might otherwise not get. It’s an exciting style of music, featuring rapid-fire solos racing over the “boom-chick” backbeat of the rhythm guitars. Often, jams will include violinists and stand-up bass players. The expertise and musicianship of the players is often dazzling.

Russell Clepper at Django 2013_0073 (500x334)

Clepper and Schneider jammin’ Django style.

Chapman said that there are different levels of jams that develop. Beginners in the genre can usually find a way to sit in on one. He does give one other cautionary statement, however.

“If there are some world class players involved in a jam,” Chapman said, “[inexperienced players] should just step back and let the music happen.”

Now I’m off to DjangoFest and if I run into a jam, I’ll just let it happen.

Russell Clepper is a singer-songwriter who plies his trade locally and around the country. He also is a substitute teacher for the Oak Harbor School District. 

Here are some helpful links for DjangoFest info:


  1. What fun, Russell! We’ve all been in those spots, and I love how you wove in your experience with the information about DjangoFest. Getting yourself out of jams is part of the creative process, my friend. Keep on jammin’! Love the photo of you playing…

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