The three musicians had no expectations when they began busking around England.
With saxophone, guitar and tuba in hand, Jamie Mellor, Will Hood and Bruce Stevens started playing together seven years ago, instruments and voices blending and echoing down whatever street that became their stage.
"That was the beauty of it was there was no preconception that we were going to do anything necessarily specific," Stevens said. "It was really just, 'God, isn't it nice to make music.' And we just did that."
Audiences grew, the band grew and, today, The Swing Ninjas perform a joyful blend of swing and jazz around the world.
Performing for the first time in Virginia, The Swing Ninjas will headline the 2017 Winter Blues Jazz Fest, presented Jan. 12-15 by Williamsburg's CultureFix. Over four days, 13 bands will perform at 10 events.
"We hope to get to know Virginia a little bit better," said Hood, the group's co-director. "It's a great way to meet people, music, and it's a great way to have that cultural exchange."
The band's music in itself is a bit of a cultural exchange. The Swing Ninjas blend a gypsy jazz rhythm, known as "La Pompe," with New Orleans-style horns, Hood described, and the band presents this style across tunes both original and borrowed from the Great American Songbook.
The magic of the The Swing Ninjas' music, though, is that it doesn't sound dated. The same spontaneous joy that gave the band a name in its busking days endures.
"The tradition of improvisation is to bring something fresh and exciting to the moment that it's being performed. I think we've always really tried to do that rather than sound like something that's 60 years old," Hood said. "Even though we've borrowed a lot of the ornamentations, the music we're trying to make exciting and sound like it's happening in the moment. Which, indeed, it is."
Seven musicians will bring that spontaneity to the stage in The Swing Ninja's performance at Williamsburg Lodge on Jan. 14.
"By watching the band, you get taken on this little journey. You see all the personalities of the band come out, all of which are very welcoming to an audience and very inclusive as well," Stevens said. "We encourage people to interact with us."
Although it is a blue and jazz festival, Hood hopes that "people just hear the music and don't actually need to put it into a genre."
That's The Swing Ninjas aim no matter the location or the audience.
"My hope would be that we can perform it and present it with such enthusiasm and sincerity that people just hear music," Hood said. "I mean, it's the famous Duke Ellington quote that there's two types of music — there's the good music and the other kind."
Growth of the fest
While the first festival, in 2015, was largely jazz-focused, the event has transitioned to incorporate more blues.
"We found that we do have a good crowd of people who love the blues as well — and great musicians," said Steve Rose, CultureFix president.
The inaugural festival sold out all, except for one, event. Last year's fest sold nearly 1,600 tickets, Rose said. As of Monday, around 800 tickets had been sold —more than 100 to out-of-state buyers — and Rose said this year's festival will have around 1,900 to 2,000 tickets available.
Rose attributes the quick success to presenting the event at a "down time" in Williamsburg. That was one of the reasons Rose, Jennifer Raines and and David Everett founded the event in 2015.
"We're very excited, because trying to create an event that's this long with this many events is a huge task, and even financially, it's a big, big risk," Rose said.
•Opening Night Reception — Local jazz favorites Good Shot Judy kick off the festival at Williamsburg Winery. 7-9:30 p.m., Jan. 12. 5800 Wessex Hudred. $35.
•Blues Bash — Three hours of live music includes a performance from Tin Can Fish Band and harmonica "challenge" among Harris Simon, Bobby BlackHat and Atiba Taylor. 6:30-10 p.m., Jan. 13. Winter Blues tent, Downtown Williamsburg. $20.
•Jazz Downtown — 504 Supreme presents two hours of jazz at the Winery's new Tasting Room and Wine Bar. 6:30-9 p.m., Jan. 13. 110 S. Henry St. $20.
•Late Night Jazz Club — The Williamsburg Art Gallery turns into a jazz club with two hours of music from Atiba Taylor and the Blue Nesta Jazz Quartet. 9:30 p.m.-12 a.m., Jan. 13. 440 W. Duke of Gloucester St. $32.
•Barrel-Aged Blues — Created by DoG Street Pub, this barrel-aged beer fest includes music on two stages from the Michael Clark Band and Jackie Scott and the Housewreckers. 11:30-4 p.m., Jan. 14. Winter Blues tent, downtown Williamsburg. $38.
•Art of Jazz — Stephanie Nakasian and the Harris Simon Trio perform, with a wine bar and dessert station nearby. 2-4:30 p.m., Jan. 14. Muscarelle Museum, 603 Jamestown Road. $38.
•Mixology and Music — Headlining event features mixology cocktail sampling and a performance from The Swing Ninjas. 7-11 p.m., Jan. 14. Williamsburg Lodge, 310 S. England St. $70.
•Jazz Brunch — The event includes another appearance from The Swing Ninjas. 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Jan. 15. Regency Room, Williamsburg Inn. $55.
•Free Community Jazz Concert — The Triple Crossing Project finishes the weekend off with a free performance at Williamsburg Winery's tasting room and wine bar. 2-5 p.m., Jan. 15. 110 S. Henry St.
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.
Want to go?
For more information or to purchase individual or VIP tickets, visit winterbluesjazzfest.com.