Scintillating gypsy jazz is touching down in Mill Valley a bit early this year, as the 2017 edition of Djangofest, the 13-year-old event inspired by the late gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, comes to the Throckmorton Theatre April 28-30.

The event regularly attracts legions of fans of the “hot” jazz sound Reinhardt pioneered as well as guitarists from all over the Bay Area, has long been one of the landmark local venue’s most popular events. Djangofest kicks off April 28 with an opening night concert featuring the Jimmy Grant Ensemble & Gustav Lindgren Trio, followed by a Saturday night performance from Samson Schmitt, Tim Kliphuis, Simon Planting & Jason Vanderford. Sunday night’s finale features Trio Dinicu and an “All-Star Djam.” Gypsy jazz guitarists will also be hosting workshops throughout the weekend.

Though Reinhardt died 63 years ago, gypsy jazz continues to find new audiences. Its popularity surged in the aftermath of Woody Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown, in which Sean Penn portrayed 1930s, fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, who idolizes Django Reinhardt. As proof that gypsy jazz’s resurgence continues, Grant says, comes in the form of the Selmer-Maccaferri and Selmer style guitars that Reinhardt favored.

“When I started playing 10 years ago, it was hard to find those guitars,” Grant says. “Now there era hundreds of people selling them.”

A Romani gypsy from Belgium, Reinhardt emerged in the 1930s as Europe’s best-known jazz musician, a virtuoso guitar player who combined his love for American greats like Louis Armstrong with the rich and mysterious Romani musical tradition. Though he died tragically young at age 43, Reinhardt’s musical legend was by that time cemented within jazz circles, and the past few decades have seen a worldwide spike in interest in both his music and his place in jazz history.

“He transformed jazz in a lot of ways,” says Nick Lehr, the co-founder of DjangoFest Mill Valley who produced his first such festival in Whidbey Island, Washington back in 2001. “Not only was he the most famous European jazz musician, but he’s also probably the only European that really contributed to the development of the art form.”

The idea for DjangoFest first struck Lehr at a similar event outside Paris, in the small town where Reinhardt lived as an adult and eventually died. Seeing the crowd’s enthusiasm for the music, Lehr thought it would be great to mount some kind of Django tribute event back home in the States.

Starting with Whidbey Island in the Northwest, Lehr has now produced editions of DjangoFest in multiple locations including Southern California, Colorado and the Bay Area.

And when Steve Jobs first introduced that most modern of devices – the iPad – to the world back in 2010, he did it to the sounds of “Swing Guitars,” one of Reinhart’s most recognizable tunes, recorded with violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintette of the Hot Club of France back in the 1930s.

Lehr is quick to point out that Reinhart’s music is for everyone, not just jazz-lovers. “It’s not the kind of music you need a PhD to appreciate,” he says. “It’s toe-tapping, swinging music that’s very accessible to people of all ages.”

Planting, a native of Holland, moved to the Bay Area a decade ago, one year after he was performing with Djangofest regulars the Robin Nolan Trio at an in-store show at Amoeba Records on Haight Street in San Francisco. He met his future wife at that show.

Planting says he was thrilled by the existence of such a tight-knit community of lovers of gypsy jazz in the Bay Area, and he’s been deeply connected to it ever since.

Planting’s first recollection of hearing Reinhardt’s distinct sound is as a 5-year-old boy in his backyard garden in Holland, when his father played Django on a 78 wind-up gramophone on warm summer afternoons. “He loved playing a Django recording of “Honeysuckle Rose,” Planting says. “I was really drawn to the enormous amount of energy that came off of that guitar.”

In 1976, Planting started taking classical training on double bass from Hans van Meegen, a well-known Dutch bass player who played at the Noord-Hollands Philharmonisch Orkest in Haarlem, Netherlands. Three years later, Planting was introduced to Fapy Lafertin, a Dutch Roma gypsy guitar player and gifted Django interpreter. The two recorded two albums together and toured throughout Europe together.

“He’s really one of the direct links to Django,” says Planting, who lives in the East Bay. “Through him, I connected to so many people in the Django community in Europe. And now I know so many musicians in the gypsy jazz here in the United States.”
While Planting plays a wide range of music in a variety of bands, including the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra.

The 411: Djangofest is April 28-30 at the Throckmorton Theatre. Tickets are $38–$65. MORE INFO & TIX.

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