As Long As the Grizzly Bears Are OK with It…

Jungle Gym Jam Passes One Tough Audition at the Bronx Zoo

Grizzly bears at Bronx ZooLast weekend’s performances at Bronx Zoo brought our band in front of a group of very discerning judges. No, I’m not talking about the celebrity critics on American Idol. I’m speaking of the four grizzly bears in the habitat right next to our tent. In between sets we learned from the zoo’s event coordinator Sashah Harbin that when the music is too loud or unpleasant these bears get up on their hind legs and growl. Sashah was pleased to inform us that the bears were just chillin’ to our family-friendly tunes.

Between sets we captured this picture of our furry neighbors taking a dip in their little pond and cuddling with each other in the water.

It was a very important weekend in the band’s development. We made dozens of new fans in New York City, a place where we want to spend more time. We paid a fitting tribute to our friend and bassist “Low Note Lou” DeMartino who suddenly departed from this world he had filled with so much joy and music. And when we told our audiences that we were dedicating these shows to Lou, they did not let us down.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam perform a family concert at Bronx Zoo in 2015

Photo by Sashah Harbin

An old friend “Amazing Alyssa” Menes returned to the stage with us to help us carry on for Lou and share our joy and love of music with kids and families. And we had a different drummer each day. “Magnificent Miguel” lived up to his name performing at the kit on Saturday and then “Rockin’ Ross” took his place at the throne on Sunday, each providing a different style that added to the energy of the music. “Cowgirl Casey” returned to the lineup after having been away in Europe for the first half of the summer. On Saturday We were joined by Washington D.C.’s “Marvelous Marsha” Goodman-Wood for her renditions of The Penguin Song and then we sang a duet of “Free to Be…You and Me.” On Sunday, Casey and I sang that duet.

Jason from the Jungle Gym Jam joined onstage by daughter and nieces for "Jungle Gym Jamming"And making the shows especially meaningful were the inclusion of my family. My wife “Awesome Amy” and our daughter “Hoppin’ Holly” played percussion all day Sunday and for one set on Saturday. My nieces Natalie and Maya joined us onstage along with Holly for a rockin’ rendition of our band’s theme song “Jungle Gym Jamming.” All three are born performers and sang & danced with lots of spirit.

My parents, aunt Ellen and brother Matt & sister-in-law Danielle were in the audience to rock out with us as we kicked off this series of performances.

We world-premiered a brand new song called “Off the Grid,” which served as the theme of these shows, with lyrics encouraging our listeners to take a break from their gadgets and spend some time outdoors. This featured song was played in all six of our sets over these two days. Here’s an audio recording of us rehearsing this song with Lou on bass less than 2 weeks before this writing.

JasonAmySashahSashah kept this big gig running smoothly and made it a pleasant experience for us with her friendly manner and by making it easy for us to move our equipment in and out of the zoo. Sashah also greeted families passing near the tent to tell them about the show and helped us garner good attendance for each show. She warmly introduced our band to the crowd before we started our sets and was wonderful with Holly. I got to briefly meet Judy Frimer, the Director of Programming and Creative Services for Wildlife Conservation Society. Judy and I had a great discussion in planning a concept for the show she wanted for the zoo – a show that would emphasize the importance of getting out into nature and away from devices with screens. She wanted a rock-n-roll show that was suitable for the whole family – kids of all ages and their parents. I took a close look at our existing songs to see which combination of songs and “moments” would help tell the story of being out in nature and away from screens. Amy and I immediately recognized the need for a song that ties that theme together.

We started with the idea for the song title “Off the Grid” and brainstormed the lyrics over the course of the next few days. The melody felt pretty well established to me. When I first played the song for Amy, she felt that perhaps the song could tell the story better at a faster tempo than the one I chose. My original setting was in a “Melissa Etheridge” type feel, but Amy convinced me to try an upbeat ska rhythm, which really did bring out the uplifting, adventurous nature of the song more fully.

And I’m glad to hear that the grizzly bears were OK with our music making. And quite a few people were, too!

I’m pretty sure these bands will go over fine with the grizzlies…and with your family when they play the Bronx Zoo:

  • 08/15-16 – Josh & the Jamtones
  • 08/22-23 – Danny Weinkauf & His Red Pants Band
  • 08/29-30 – Hot Peas n Butter
  • 09/05-06 – The Pop Ups

Tell us about your family rock-n-roll experience at the Bronx Zoo in the comments below.

In Memory of “Low Note Lou” DeMartino

Bassist for Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan and Jungle Gym Jam

Lou DeMartino, Bassist for Joe D'Urso and Stone Caravan, Jungle Gym Jam

Photo by Bob Didner

“I have a confession to make,” said this high tenor voice on the other end of the phone. “When you posted that bassist wanted flyer in Sam Ash, I took it off the bulletin board and took it home so no one else would get the gig.” That told me everything I needed to know about Lou’s desire to spread joy through music making. This total pro who made a career playing with Asbury Park scene mainstay Joe D’Urso & Stone Caravan was now driven to share his gift with kids and families. He wanted to jam with me and explore joining our very own Jungle Gym Jam. And he didn’t want to take any chances with a competitor getting the gig.

I had heard Joe D’Urso and band on a “Light of Day” tribute album to Bruce Springsteen and by extension, Lou, doing a very cool ska version of the Boss’ classic “Badlands.” And I had always liked that track. I dug further into Joe’s catalog and kept liking what I was hearing. So it was an easy decision on my part to invite him to my house for a practice session with Ross, Casey and me. We had a big outdoor gig coming up in 3 short weeks; there was no time to lose getting our new guy up to speed, and Lou was totally up to the challenge, no matter what was going on in his main band.

Every text, every e-mail and even every voicemail was concluded with “LLU” which he explained stands for “Lou Loves You.” Lou smiled with his whole face, including parts of the face I didn’t even think were possible. And he got a tremendous kick out of my daughter Holly for the little things – like when he’d arrive at our house close to Holly’s bedtime, we’d have her favorite TV series on – the classic Batman series with Adam West – you know – POW! BAM! ZOWIE! It tickled him that this campy crimefighter adventure was what soothed our little girl before lights out.

Lou’s sweet, easygoing nature was infectious in our band. He took the stress out of the grueling parts of the gig – load-ins and load-outs with his blend of confidence, humor and love of craft. And in the recording studio when you’re under a microscope to turn in the perfect performance, Lou exuded that same pleasant and confidence-inspiring vibe.

We hadn’t been playing together long enough to really come 100% into each other’s worlds. I knew nothing of his home/family life or backstory and didn’t want to pry. Lou hadn’t been in the children’s music game very long – less than 4 months. I came to like his tracks with Joe D’Urso but hadn’t gotten to one of their live performances or seen Lou’s trademark sense of humor on full display to that legendary degree I hear about when Lou would get in front of an Asbury Park bar crowd. He hadn’t really tapped into that side of himself performing for kids & families in the three gigs we played. I’ll always wonder how his persona would have emerged on the kindie stage once he really got totally comfortable with all those bass parts I threw at him in such a short time span. I do know that he joked that he would have liked to carry his “Mr. Lou” nickname from the adult music world to the kindie world but that New Jersey’s popular kindie entertainer “Mr. Ray” beat him to that particular naming convention. Of course I proudly nicknamed him “Low-note Lou” in keeping with our scheme of alliterative names for all our band members.

Speaking of the gigs we played, Lou was an absolute trooper playing at the Turtle Back Zoo’s annual fundraiser on a relentlessly rainy day. Since it was my first gig back after transplant surgery, not quite 4 weeks post-operation I was forbidden to lift heavy objects (which is half the job description of most rock musicians), so Lou offered to load my equipment from my house up our awkward stairway into the minivan on the way to the show and then unload everything back downstairs after the event. He hung around all day in that cold needle rain waiting patiently for the all-clear to hit the wet, drippy stage, playing to a small, scattered gathering of those families that were hardy enough to weather the rain. And his voice coming through the PA to sing harmonies was tremendous, really catching Amy’s and my attention that day.

Just last night we got in what I didn’t know would be one last-ever jam session together. Lou was particularly focused on building tight, powerful rhythms with our drummer Ross in this practice. It was hard, repetitive work and he did appear tired (and made mention of it) after having been up early for his day job. We parted company looking forward to a few more rehearsals to further tighten up and then playing a great run of gigs. So instead of playing these gigs with Lou, I will instead dedicate them to him.

The outpouring of love and adoration on Lou’s Facebook timeline speaks volumes about what he meant to so many as a source of merriment and irreplaceable rock-n-roll memories. Lou and I were only at the beginning of a pleasant friendship and working relationship. I feel blessed for the time we had together and will miss that reflection of unbridled joy I used to watch him tap into. I’ll take the importance of seeking that joy with me into every moment of music-making that I can and I’ll think of Lou.

JLUL (Jason loves you, Lou!)

One of the Three Most Important Things I’ll Do in my Life

I’m Donating a Kidney to my Wife Amy Next Week

by Jason Didner

Amy, Jason and Holly Didner in 2012

Marrying Amy and adopting Holly are the 2 most important things I’ve done in my life.

Marrying Amy and adopting Holly are easily the two most important things I’d done in my life up until now. These days, a new decision has been presented to me and the choice was clear. In order to preserve my wife’s precious life and give my very young daughter a mother who can get down on the floor and play with her unfettered by dialysis machines and chronic fatigue, the moment of truth has come where I have the power to give my family the future it deserves, just by saying ‘yes’ and accepting the experiences that comes with that choice. This is the choice that protects the other two most important choices I’ve ever made.

Amy and Jason Didner's wedding in 2000

Since before getting married we knew Amy's diabetes would present a challenge.

We’ve known since early in our marriage that Amy was experiencing steadily declining kidney functioning as a complication of Type 1 Diabetes, which she’s had since age 8. About 2 years ago, we were instructed to start seeing a kidney specialist regularly and consider the merits of a kidney transplant. Amy’s excellent diabetes specialist, Dr. Joseph Giangola, suggested that Amy could be a good candidate for a kidney-and-pancreas transplant. Both would come from the same donor, who would have to be deceased in order to donate the pancreas. Typically, victims of accidents who have indicated in their lifetimes a willingness to donate organs are the donors of these precious organs.

A kidney-pancreas transplant offers the added benefit of temporarily “curing” type 1 diabetes for as long as the transplanted pancreas functions, which is currently in the 5-10 year range.

Over the course of several months, we started making very frequent trips to Hackensack University Medical Center’s transplant team to get Amy checked out through numerous medical tests to ensure a transplant and its effects would likely be safe for her. All our efforts had gone toward becoming a recipient for a deceased person’s kidney and pancreas. A discussion with the transplant team’s kidney doctor, however, brought up another concern: As Amy’s kidney deficiencies made her progressively more exhausted while facing the daily challenges of raising a toddler, this was a sign that her kidney decline might be reaching a critical point – a point where perhaps she’d have to start dialysis until a matching kidney/pancreas from a deceased person might come along.

There would be only one controllable alternative to dialysis, given the unpredictable nature of deceased organs becoming available. A living, healthy person would have to consent to donating a kidney. That person could be a relative or a total stranger. The blood type would have to match and the antibodies would have to be compatible.
I agreed to become an option, a fallback plan, in case a deceased kidney and pancreas would not work out by the time she’d absolutely need either a transplant or dialysis. I began the process of getting tested and interviewing with doctors and social workers. It was discovered that we were in fact a compatible match and I could donate my kidney directly to Amy.

To the best of everybody’s current knowledge, my life expectancy will remain as it already is, even after donating a kidney. My remaining kidney will grow in size and capability in the coming months, able to effectively rid my body of toxins enough to last a lifetime. Now probably won’t be a great time to take up cage fighting or motorcycle racing, as I have to protect my remaining kidney from injury.
The transplant is set for Tuesday morning, 5/26 at Hackensack University Medical Center. Amy and I will be operated on in neighboring operating rooms.

Jason gives Holly the flight experience at Heroes Rock at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in February 2015

Lifting people and things will be off limits during recovery.

People ask me if I’m scared or nervous. I answer, “yes, but not about the things you might expect.” See, as far as the part where I go under anesthesia and wake up minus one kidney, feel pain and experience healing, I’m not particularly worried because I can’t control that. It will just happen. The part that does make me nervous is the process of suspending all the “doing” that makes up my day-to-day life, whether it’s carrying Holly on my shoulders (lifting is off limits for at least 6 weeks!), performing children’s music in a live setting, hosting weekly kids’ concerts by other musicians, visiting with my disabled brother-in-law or supporting the computer operations of the construction company that employs me. In the runup to the surgery, I’ll struggle with the process of applying the brakes to this constantly fast-moving train and preparing everyone (and myself) for the smoothest possible transition into a reality where I’m on the bench. That’s a new and strange experience for me to ponder.

There have been gigs to cancel, substitute performers to find, help to prepare (me asking for household help…YIKES!), documentation to write for a consultant who will be available to deal with the technological emergencies that come up in a workplace. There’s been plenty of worry that I can’t prepare adequately. But once we get picked up to check in to the hospital, all that will change to “just being. Just healing.”

Amy and Jason Didner on the tennis court in 2002.

Tennis is Amy’s favorite game – I hope she’ll return to it once recovered from the transplant.

For Amy that recovery process will take longer but I understand that by the 2nd day after surgery, she’ll really feel the benefits of the kidney working like it hasn’t since her mid-20s. I remember reading a story of a dad who needed a kidney and as his kidney function continued to decline, all he could do was sleep. Now after surgery he was playing basketball with his son for the first time ever. This story is strong inspiration to me that Amy and Holly can have an energetic relationship like never before. Amy’s favorite game since childhood has been tennis and I have hopes that she’ll rekindle that love for the game and share it with Holly.

Over the next several months I’ll continue sharing my thoughts and stories about this point in my family and personal life. I hope the sharing of these experiences bring you inspiration and knowledge that benefit you and your family as well.
What are your most important life decisions and what effect did those choices have on your life? What important choices lie ahead for you? I’d love for you to join in the discussion by commenting below.

For more information about organ and tissue donation, see the New Jersey Sharing Network.

A Long-Distance Jam Session and a Trip to D.C.

JamKazam - a computer application for long-distance rehearsals in real timeTomorrow I will have a truly unique experience in preparing to give an out-of-town concert this weekend. Thanks to the power of the Internet, I will be in my home studio having a live rehearsal with two musicians in Washington, D.C. who will power my band for this concert. “Uncle Devin” Walker and “Wonderful Wardell” Howell will be at Devin’s place in D.C., connected to me in real-time using the JamKazam computer application. Using microphones, headphones, and our Internet connections, we’ll be able to interact almost like we’re all three performing together in the same room.

Making music together in real time presents special challenges that go beyond the use of Skype or Facetime, where the experience of brief delays or “latency” is fairly common and usually not disruptive to a conversation. Those same little delays can throw off a band’s rhythm quite a bit when jamming together from different locations. To keep the JamKazam session running as smooth as possible, it’s important to plug a network cable directly into your Internet router (sometimes built right into the modem supplied by your Internet service provider) and not rely on the convenience of Wi-Fi, which also comes with its own little time delays when streaming audio or video.

This will be my first experience with JamKazam and I’m excited about the possibilities this opens to connect with fellow musicians in a new and inspiring way. In this case it means that our impromptu band for next weekend can be well rehearsed ahead of my trip to the D.C. area. In my case, I’m counting on JamKazam to meet a specific need in prepping for a show with musicians I’ve already become familiar with. But JamKazam can also connect musicians with like-minded musicians with similar tastes and levels of mastery. The search tools make it possible to look for musicians to jam with on a specific instrument or in a geographic location. The folks at JamKazam told me that video capability is coming about 2 months from the time this article is published.

If you’re in the D.C. area and have kids who could use some good family entertainment, come out and rock with us at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, VA this Saturday. We take the stage at 10:30. This is a one-of-a-kind show where my Jersey style, Bruce Springsteen influenced rock-n-roll for kids will meet the funk/jazz/R&B stylings of my D.C. friends. I’m calling this show “Jersey Jason Meets the D.C. Jungle Gym Jam.”

Jersey  Jason meets the D.C. Jungle Gym Jam at Jammin' Java May 16 2015.

You can read more about my music for kids and families in this article by the D.C. area’s own Carolyn Ross, creator of the Kindie Music D.C. blog.

Would you like a free sampling of my music? Help yourself to three of my songs at http://www.njkindiemusic.com/dc-area.

How has the Internet connected you and your family with people who live outside your area? What are your hopes for the possibilities the Internet holds in connecting people? Please share your comments below.

Musically yours,

Jersey Jason