The gypsy’s left hand was badly burned in 1928, in a caravan fire, wrecking his fourth and fifth fingers, a problem for the average guitarist.
But Django Reinhardt was not average.
The Belgian-born musician found ways to dance his fingers up and down the neck of a guitar, playing runs that became his signature, in a style — gypsy jazz — he largely created.
His music will live on next week as the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts hosts the 12th annual Djangofest Northwest from Wednesday through Sept. 23.
Musicians from across the globe will gather in Langley to play concerts. Fans, meanwhile, will take to the town’s campgrounds and coffee shops to hold their own impromptu “djam sessions.” Roughly 2,000 people are expected to attend the festival.
Nick Lehr, artistic director of Djangofest, said Reinhardt continues to inspire, in part thanks to the deep mark the guitarist made on jazz in the years leading up to, and during, World War II.
“He was like a huge rock star at his height in Paris,” Lehr said. “His song ‘Nuages,’ which became kind of the anthem for Paris during the occupation, sold a phenomenal amount.”
Gypsy jazz itself has ties to American jazz and swing. Gypsy musicians were interpreting popular songs of the day, covering people like Louis Armstrong. They would use whatever instruments they had — guitars, violins, the odd accordion — and, in their failed attempts at mimicry, created a new style that took on a life of its own.
Reinhardt, though, was the scene’s greatest star. Sadly, like so many great stars, he died young, suffering a stroke in 1953 at the age of 43.
By then, his music had earned a following. It percolated underground for decades before gaining traction again in the 1990s.
Lehr started Djangofest on Whidbey Island in 2001 to give Reinhardt fans a way to share his legacy. Lehr wasn’t surprised the festival caught on. He said Americans have always had a soft spot for the gypsy jazz culture.
“The idea of traveling the world in more or less free fashion, as we imagine the gypsies to be, is appealing on many levels, spiritually, aesthetically,” he said. “We’re all kind of gypsies, aren’t we?”
Djangofest Northwest: The lineup
• 8 p.m. Wednesday, Whidbey Island Center for the Arts: Greg Ruby Quartet; Hot Club Detroit
• 8 p.m. Thursday, Whidbey Island Center for the Arts: Cyrille Aimee and Diego Figueiredo; Billet Deux
• 3 p.m. Sept. 21, Whidbey Island Center for the Arts: Jimmy Grant Quartet; Pearl Django with Martin Taylor
• 8 p.m. Sept. 21, Langley Middle School: Antoine and Sebastien Boyer with Simon Planting and Robin Nolan; Lollo Meier and Tcha Limberger
• 3 p.m. Sept. 22, Langley Middle School: Joscho Stephan; John Jorgenson Quintet
• 8 p.m. Sept. 22, Langley Middle School: Robin Nolan and Tcha Limberger; Paulus Schafer and Tim Kliphuis with Gonzalo Bergara
• 3 p.m. Sept. 23, Langley Middle School: Whit Smith and Matt Munisteri with Beau Sample; Robin Nolan Trio
• 3 p.m. Sept. 23, Langley Middle School: Zazi; Gonzalo Bergara Quartet with John Jorgenson and Joscho Stephan
Tickets are $32 to $70. To purchase or for more information, go to wicaonline.com or call 800-638-7631.