A Week at the Django a Gogo Music Festival and Camp

Jamming started early at Django a Gogo.

The guitars came out before students introduced themselves. Circles of musicians were formed within minutes. Chord changes to jazz manouche (“gypsy jazz”) classics such as Django Reinhardt's “Minor Swing” and “Nuages” began to echo through the then-empty Woodland venue that would serve as headquarters for the week–long event.

Django a Gogo is a week-long music workshop centered around the legacy of its namesake, Django Reinhardt, whose extensive body of work dating from pre–World War II France through the early 1950s. As I talked about in my piece about the legacy of Django Reinhardt, his distinct style thrives today.

The style is kept alive by a small, dedicated fleet of guitarists hailing from across the world. Django a Gogo brought in the Netherlands' Stochelo Rosenberg and Paulus Schafer, Montreal's Denis Chang, and Stephane Wrembel — by way of Reinhardt's own hometown Fontainebleau, France — who did triple duty as teacher, performer, and event organizer.

Stephane Wrembel at Barbes (2009)

Admittedly, walking into a room full of guitarists possessing the same repertoire was a little bit intimidating. Having only taken a handful of “formal” lessons in my life, and being primarily taught as a teenager by an incredibly gifted uncle, it was easy to feel a little overmatched.

The level of skill displayed by the students — some as young as 14 — vamping over one of Reinhardt's classic recordings, “All of Me,” was staggering.

But as students slowly filed into the Woodland, it quickly became evident that the small student body — numbering 50 — featured guitarists from all walks of life that traveled, in some cases, thousands of miles for two simple reasons: a passion for Reinhardt's music and a desire to learn how to carry that legacy themselves.

As such, the conversation flowed naturally. A room full of strangers with no direction or prompting quickly learned how to become friends: a television writer from Los Angeles, a Pennsylvania–based guitarist who fronts his own jazz manouche group, a North Jersey jazz cat who epitomizes the words “cool” and “jazz.” Vancouver, British Columbia and Lancaster, England were represented, too.

Registration soon gave way to the event's “welcome concert,” with Wrembel giving an oral history of Django Reinhardt's life and musical influences while backed up by his own band, which frequents the likes of New York's Bistro Fada and Barbes clubs. They were joined by special guests such as Schafer, Chicago-based flamenco wizard Alfonso Ponticelli, and Wrembel's own student, 18–year–old Sara L'Abriola.

With Wrembel proclaiming at the end of the concert that, “Everybody is going to the pub to drink and have a good time,” many students opted to do just that. As such, with no regard to the next day's 9:00 a.m. start time, the music continued.

And it was here, at the festival's makeshift “Hot Club,” that many a musicians' dream might have been realized: being able to discuss guitar picks with strangers over a pint of Guinness deep into the night.

Looking to head to a clinic or music camp? Make sure to come prepared and leave ready to practice with some essential tools like your metronome, tuner, portable recorder, and, of course, plenty of picks.

Day One

Backpacks. Notebooks. Name tags. Something felt oddly reminiscent of the first day of school. Signing up for intermediate–level rhythm and improvisation classes, the first day of the workshop began with a simple directive across the board: get back to the basics.

My first lesson was taught by 25–year–old Finnish wonder Olli Soikkeli, a New York City–based guitarist whose band, Rhythm Future Quartet, has been heralded by the likes of Huffington Post and All Jazz Club for their innovative, modernized approach to gypsy jazz.

Valinor Quartet with Olli Soikkeli - "Tchavolo Swing"

Tighten up your rhythm. Slow the tempo down. Make every quarter note and eighth note count. Soikkeli stressed that these basic fundamental are especially true within gypsy jazz, where rhythm guitars are syncopated to play the role of a percussionist.

The second lesson, improvisation techniques, was led by Schafer, a 38–year–old jazz manouche phenom born into a Dutch Sinti–Romani community that ensured Reinhardt's recordings would flow through his blood at an early age.

After assessing each student's ability level by way of trading solos over Reinhardt's famous “Minor Swing,” Schafer dove into select “licks” stressing the importance of the “rest stroke.” Schafer, too, fielded questions, gave students individual attention and even allowed students to shoot close–up video to effectively capture finger positioning and pick-hand dynamics.

The rest of the day wasn't spent playing, but listening.

Christian Van Hemut and Stochelo Rosenberg, co–owners of the Rosenberg Academy (one of the internet's leading gypsy jazz resources), would lead the first of two master classes centered around Rosenberg's formidable rhythm and improvisation techniques.

Stochelo Rosenberg - "Minor Swing"

Using an “interview” format to compensate for language barriers, Van Hemut explained aspects of Rosenberg's playing that have mystified the genre's most dedicated fans, including breaking down his downstroke-fueled picking motion and extensive use of diminished arpeggios.

Somewhat of an elusive figure who seldom appears in the United States, Rosenberg also broke down his learning process, recalling using an old record player to rewind Reinhardt's recordings and learning by ear.

Van Hemut easily kept the workshop's attention for a second seminar focused on his own technique. Van Hemut also explained that his online presence via YouTube and the Rosenberg Academy has allowed him to build a living a a musician as both a guitarist and violinist, focusing his efforts on teaching and providing learning materials for students across the globe.

To wrap up the day, there was another concert. This one featured Chicago’s flamenco/jazz virtuoso Alfonso Ponticelli, whose charisma and demeanor enchanted the audience as much as his formidable chops. There was the obligatory return to the pub, too, with the town's Irish pub quickly becoming a modern day “hot club” featuring late–night jam sessions between students and teachers alike.

Day Two

Regardless of ability level, or any perceived barriers between “student” and “teacher,” it was evident that the sense of community at the Woodland was rapidly growing.

During the first lesson of the day, rhythm techniques featuring David Gastine, I found myself writing transcriptions and chord charts for myself and other students. Gastine was the most approachable of instructors, hanging around outside to jam Johnny Cash and John Denver songs with students between lessons.

But he mainly served as one of the most ingenious guitarists, focusing on rhythmic nuances of techniques like the bossa, the rumba, and the waltz instead of how to solo over them. In Gastine's own words, mastering each specific style opened him up to countless opportunities within the gypsy jazz world and beyond.

After the second lesson, improvisation techniques with Olli Soikkeli, students paired off to practice licks and comping techniques together. Over the course of the day, one jam session might have been picking another guitarist's brain about their own technique. Another could have been spent helping a classmate nail down a diminished run.

Ultimately, there was no judging. There wasn't an ego to be found at the Woodland. This was especially evident during a workshop featuring one of the all-time guitar greats, Al Di Meola.

Di Meola said that he considers himself an outsider who appreciates the work of Reinhardt. Di Meola took the fusion world by storm in the mid–1970s, going on to earn tremendous respect for his work with Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin.

Over the years, Di Meola has developed a rhythmic vocabulary that's distinctly his own. Over the course of a 90–minute workshop, he discussed how he developed his rhythmic and improvisational styles.

The Rhythm Future Quartet rounded out the day with a full set of their futuristic take on the jazz manouche style, covering sonic ground ranging from Reinhardt to the Beatles' “Come Together” with a blend of youthful energy and a dizzying musical vocabulary placing the band's members far beyond their age would suggest.

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Day Three

The third day of Django a Gogo found many students, including myself, with a much better idea of what holes in technique and theory need to be addressed, and which instructors could provide that.

I personally sought out a lesson with Denis Chang, a Montreal–based guitarist known as much for his rhythm chops as his own online presence, providing jazz manouche fans with another invaluable resource.

Chang's rhythm course left students split between scribbling notes, taking video and having their technique dissected personally by Chang, who shifted from one student to another between exercises to offer more personalized advice.

Feeling a little overmatched soloing over unfamiliar chord changes in my “Level 2” improvisation courses, I stumbled upon Alfonso Ponticelli's “Level 1” course. This became my personal standout session.

With only six people in attendance — as opposed to intermediate courses with close to 25 — Ponticelli was easily able to give personal attention to each student's technique. He focused on providing building blocks for soloing over chord changes within the manouche style that I felt were missing.

With the bulk of the workshop's instructors gearing up for a gig at New York City's Carnegie Hall, the day ended early so that we could op a train to the city.

Wrembel took the stage at Carnegie Hall at 8 PM sharp, starting off the three–hour concert with a solo performance of Reinhardt's “Improvisation No. 1.” He progressively brought out special guests — the workshop’s teachers — until the stage was full.

Stephane Wrembel, Stochelo Rosenberg and Al Di Meola at Carnegie Hall

They hit on everything from Di Meola's “Mediterranean Sundance,” to Wrembel's own “Bistro Fada” (best known from Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris), to a Gastine–led cover of John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

It didn’t feel like these were a bunch of workshop teachers playing Carnegie Hall, but a bunch of friends up there just jamming at a larger version of the Woodland.

The box seats were a nice touch, too, included with the price of admission to Django a Gogo.

Day Four

To be blunt, reality set in. Four days of lessons, seminars and jam sessions can take a toll. Concerts and late–night jam sessions at the pub stretched each 12-hour day into a 16-hour day.

Just about everybody seemed to feel it except for Stephane Wrembel.

Twelve hours removed from a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall, Wrembel found himself at the Woodlands with a small group of students for the workshop's last round of group lessons. In fact, he was inviting students who he hadn't taught yet to come down for a lesson.

Wrembel offered improvisation techniques and exercises encouraging students to approach solos not with “licks” and “scales,” but with leading tones and a chordal approach.

It felt somewhat surreal jamming in a circle with one of America's premier gypsy jazz guitarists merely twelve hours after he performed at Carnegie Hall for thousands, but Wrembel's energy and passion for teaching proved to be infectious as he stretched the standard 90–minute lesson closer to two hours.

This energy was rallied by bluegrass flatpicker Larry Keel, who later held a workshop detailing his own unique approach to rhythm playing and his own influences. He was later joined by Rosenberg, whose own playing style seamlessly fit into Keel's bluegrass-inspired compositions.

Now a full 24 hours removed from Carnegie and presumably having a little downtime, Paulus Schafer unofficially wrapped up the festival with a final concert that would again put Rosenberg and Wrembel on stage. Then, of course, there was a final night at the pub featuring student jams and great conversation.

Paulus Schäfer Trio - "Paquito"

Day Five

It felt hard to believe that just a few days prior, few people filing into the Woodland knew each other. It felt equally hard to believe that it would be so difficult saying goodbye to teachers, students and, hell, even the staff at the Woodland that kept this whole thing together.

It was all of these people who have helped keep jazz manouche alive for so long. It was their passion for the music and dedication to passing their knowledge and passion along to a new generation. Yet there’s always a sense of open–mindedness in accepting that musicians with all levels of ability, ready and willing to help carry that torch.

Teachers and students slowly filed into the Woodlands for a final brunch that, naturally, turned into one large jam session. Ending exactly how it started, the workshop's students had one last opportunity to network with each other, play music together, and sit alongside jazz manouche's modern–day greats.

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