One Year Ago Today-Kidney Transplant with Awesome Amy!

Jason and Amy from the Jungle Gym Jam-for kids and families who love to ROCK!Today (May 26) is what the Kidney Transplant Donors and Receipients Group on Facebook calls our “kidneyversary” – marking one year since Amy and I were wheeled into neighboring operating rooms at Hackensack University Medical Center so I could donate a kidney to her. As much as I’ve given of myself to preserve Amy’s life and her quality of living, she’s given right back to me — early and often, starting before the transplant!

It was in the back of my mind that as Amy’s kidney situation over the past two years grew dire that I may have to say goodbye to making children’s music at any time if we determined together that it no longer fits the needs of our family in its state of fragile health. All I knew was that nothing I could ever do with a guitar would be as important as what I was about to do.

 

Bao-Bao, the juvenile panda at Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jason Didner

Bao-Bao, the juvenile panda at Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jason Didner

With that in mind, every performance, every project we took on as a family/band felt like an improbable gift just to be able to go through with it. Two clear examples come to mind; the trip to Vienna, VA we made in order to keep our first-ever gig at Jammin’ Java, just 2 weeks before the surgery (Amy’s native kidneys were in serious decline and her blood was full of toxins; her energy level was exceptionally low at that time). Though not well enough to get onstage, she was able to be in the audience cuddling with our daughter. The next day, before heading home, we visited the Smithsonian National Zoo and met the giant pandas, featuring Bao Bao, the adorable baby panda. Though Amy’s health was poor at the time, she really wanted to see pandas in-person, so we took the long, long walk up to the top of the zoo’s hill in hot temperatures to have that experience.

Amy and Jason Didner two days after undergoing a kidney transplant together in May 2015.

Amy and Jason Didner two days after undergoing a kidney transplant together in May 2015.

Two weeks later we’d have the surgery; of course, a few gigs were cancelled and I had the great help of Miss Nina and Rolie Polie Guacamole to sub for me so that the venues and their patrons wouldn’t be left without entertainment. The hardest part of canceling a show is letting people down.

Then, remarkably, Amy was willing to come out with the band to give performances just 3 weeks after surgery. Our comeback gig was a fundraiser for Essex County Turtle Back Zoo on a rainy day in June – a soggy outdoor gig, to really challenge our resolve. What made that day special (and bittersweet, in retrospect) is that Mr. Lou DeMartino, our bassist at the time, provided extra help, carrying musical equipment I was not yet healed enough to lift. I was so accustomed to refusing to accept this kind of help but understood the importance of following doctor’s orders and giving my surgical wound proper time to heal. We sat in stools and performed acoustically at this gig to avoid the temptation to jump around and possibly disturb the incision. Lou would only live 5 more weeks after that event; a sudden asthma attack claimed his life later that summer.

Jason and Amy's first performance since the transplant in the summer of 2015. It would also be Mr. Lou's last performance with the Jungle Gym Jam.

Jason and Amy’s first performance since the transplant in the summer of 2015. It would also be Mr. Lou’s last performance with the Jungle Gym Jam.

Just 2 weeks after the Turtle Back Zoo gig, we were back out on the road and Amy was on the stage with me for a 90-minute performance on the 4th of July in Frederick, MD. This was her first time back onstage since the surgery and her first time ever doing such a long show. She’s performed in nearly every show with me since then, except for during a hospitalization.

Late last summer, the transplant center told Amy she had to be admitted even though she felt fine (low white blood cell count in her blood test results). I had the choice of canceling some gigs and Amy spoke her wishes for me to keep our first-ever performance at Jones Beach while she was hospitalized. I felt so loved and supported by that decision on her part; the hospital can be a lonely place and she felt the show was important to my well being enough to encourage me to put on that show, which turned out to be a very special connection with the audience; only having Amy there and onstage with me would have been better.

Jason and Amy Didner with Summertime Santa puppet in Belmar 2015. Photo by Bob Didner

Jason and Amy Didner with Summertime Santa puppet in Belmar 2015. Photo by Bob Didner

The bare fact that Amy has rediscovered the energy to give performances and go out on all the family outings with Holly and me (before the surgery she often had to stay home and rest while I kept our daughter entertained) has been miraculous. Much about the recovery from the transplant over the past year has not been easy. When Amy had only her ailing native kidneys, her body metabolized the numerous medications needed to treat her diabetic complications in a very different way than now with a healthy, transplanted kidney doing the work. The past year has been one of trial and error with medication and a litany of side effects. It has required great patience and faith on both our parts and has severely tested our emotions. We’ve had to diligently prepare Holly for both her parents to be recovering from surgery at the same time. Our little girl blew us away with how much she understood before and after the operation.

No doubt who’s in charge here as Mommy & Daddy recover from surgery.

Yet through it all, Amy has remained steadfast in her commitment to the band – the live shows, the time and money spent recording the new album, the scary financial risks we’ve taken to make this offering of children’s music possible. When I think of all this, I feel greatly, greatly loved. And my love for her flows like a song in my heart – or is that my kidney?

What are the important milestones in your family life? What every day of love within your family look even bigger when you take a look back later? Please get into the conversation in the comments section below.

Kids/Family Media Spotlight: Parenting/Kids Music Blogger MrJeff2000

Jeffrey Cohen, a.k.a. MrJeff2000, with Jason Didner from the Jungle Gym Jam at KindieComm 2014Two years ago, at KindieComm, a conference for the children’s music community, I had the pleasure of meeting one Jeffrey Cohen, a.k.a. MrJeff2000. He’s a dad with a quick wit, a strong identity with his hometown of New York City (just across a pair of rivers from me on the Jersey side), and a voracious appetite for writing about children’s music. Aside from blogging, Jeff has developed a fun, highly interactive way of sharing what his family is listening to on a regular basis, as you’ll learn about in this interview. Jeff’s reviews of my two albums Everyone’s Invited! and Lollipop Motel, plus a few singles I’ve released, are as playful as I hoped the music would come across, and I very much enjoyed reading them, even when imagining I was at a remove from the works he was writing about.
Q: When did you first found MrJeff200 and where did the name come from? 
In 1994, I installed America OnLine (AOL) software onto my Mac desktop computer and created an account. There were no “Jeff Cohen” options available and AOL kept suggesting random numbers such as “JeffCohen42” that were not really my thing. Originally I was going to use “DrJeff,” but decided against it. “2000” came from the thought that in 4-5 years, I would re-adjust the ID. In 1999, I attempted to switch to “MrJeff3000.” However that ID was taken and AOL whimsically offered “MrJeff2452.” I decided that my future online identity was best left in the past. I did not realize that 22 years later it would yield so many interesting returns.
Q: How did you begin discovering children’s music, especially kindie? 
 
My older son Ben (15 1/2) has always been into music, even before we started attending concerts. His mother and I played whatever was in the family collection, from Bruce Springsteen to Soul Asylum to Aerosmith. His first shows included the Wiggles debut at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and Dan Zanes and Friends at Symphony Space. We liked that venue a lot, despite it being two trains (Long island Rail Road and subway) from our home in Queens. We became members and have seen numerous performances over the years. My younger son Matthew (5 1/2) continued in the tradition.
We found a connection in kindie music because it was readily accessible. Not just lyrically or instrumentally, but on a personal level. I’ve been to shows where Ben has interjected comments or made suggestions that the performers have immediately put into their act, on the spot. We once got to the Leonard Nimoy Theater (as SS) early and ran into Uncle Rock (Robert Burke Warren), whom we’ve known off-stage for many years. He took a blank piece of paper and created his set list with input from Ben. At what other level of musical performance does that happen?
Q: Ben’s Playlist is a great social tool to connect musicians that Ben’s listening to on a given day. Tell us how Ben’s Playlist got started and a little about the process of putting these playlists together with him. Is this a playlist on his MP3 player? 
 
Originally I made an annual birthday CD of songs that Ben really liked over the past year. Bill (and Ella) Child’s Spare the Rock podcast was brought our way due to Uncle Rock. He put out his first CD and Bill played “Rock and Roll Babysitter” from it. Robert sent an email blast alerting everyone. I downloaded the episode and we played it in the car. Ben’s face was full of astonishment – he had only heard that song at home, in the living room, off the CD. And then Bill played Roger Day’s “It’s a No-No To Kiss a Rhino.” Ben laughed out loud and said, “Again!” I had to play the song 4-5 times in a row for him before we could move on.
When Ben started going to school, listening to music in the morning while waiting for the school bus was a great stress reliever. First I just played one of his favorite CDs. But the unpredictability of the bus meant I had to shut it off mid-song, which aggravates him. So I started making a playlist of 6-8 songs on iTunes that could play while he ate breakfast, packed up his lunch, brushed his teeth, and got ready by the door. Sometimes it ran long, but not often.
Eventually Ben took ownership of making his own selections. First over my shoulder, then sitting on my lap, then asking me to move over, and finally saying “Dad, please go,” so he could do it.
Ben is the great arbiter. After I review something, I select 4-5 songs and put them into his “master list.” If he likes them, he chooses them as part of his rotation. But I check the SONGS list and if something hasn’t been played in 6 months or more, it goes. Some songs just keep sticking around, even after that performer has released a new album.
Q: How has kindie music developed or changed in the years you’ve been covering it? 
 
There’s more of it! Or at least, more people in the movement have found me or reached out to me. And it’s become more diverse. You can’t say Justin Roberts and Ziggy Marley are doing the exact same thing, except it all falls under the kindie heading in some fashion.
Q: I understand you do other writing beside the MrJeff2000 blog. Tell us about some other writing projects you’ve been involved in. 
 
I fell into the blog due to technological concerns. I had written a few articles for a defunct local newspaper. The Apple system software was updating and I did not want the pieces to go to waste or fall through the cracks. So I started the blog simply to “save” those pieces for posterity. If you look at the archives, you can see huge time gaps.
I decided to document Ben’s playlists just to have some way to figure out if he was picking the same artists on the same days. Rather that a spreadsheet, I thought it might be interesting. After a while, I started to use Twitter to publicize the playlists to the artists that Ben really liked, who also had accounts. He thought it was cool that someone like Brady Rymer would “like” his playlist and thank him.
Elizabeth Waldman from Waldmania PR contacted me via email and asked if I did reviews of children’s music. I said I’d give it a shot. From there, Beth Blenz-Clucas and Stephanie Mayers – and I don’t want to leave the others out, but there are more – started sending me CDs. It just steamrolled!
I’ve written a novel (Dad Confidential) which is sort of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” from a harried dad’s perspective, complete with illustrations by a high school and former work colleague named Robert Wallman. He’s a great line artist. I also compiled a bunch of essays from college (“More Cheese Please”). Both are available on Amazon.
Finally, I’ve written some screenplays. A couple have been optioned but none have been produced. I’m still crossing my fingers. Two of them are listed on a professional site called inktip.com where industry professionals such as producers and directors can view them. That’s how “Honorable Men” got optioned a few years ago.

Lollipop Motel Album Launch Brought Beachy Fun to North Jersey

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam at the Old Mogul Theatre in Montclair, NJ for the album release celebration of Lollipop Motel

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam with The Defending Champions’ horn section. Photo by Bob Didner

MONTCLAIR, NJ – Last week we celebrated the launch of our beachy new family rock album Lollipop Motel right in our hometown’s new venue The Old Mogul Theatre. We used our imaginations to transform this historic dance hall into a a boardwalk scene, complete with beachy music, boardwalk games, treats, face painting and arts & crafts. We also invited families to bring their beach blankets and dress for the beach.

You can help yourself to Lollipop Motel instantly via download; 50% of your download purchase will go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital if you order by May 31! 

Miss Nina and Baze (from Baze and His Silly Friends) open the show for Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam at the Old Mogul Theatre in Montclair.

Miss Nina Meets Baze! Photo by Bob Didner

To help us kick off the celebration we had a first-ever live performance by Miss Nina and Baze (Baze and His Silly Friends) together onstage. They made a great duo for kids’ music; Miss Nina said she’d be Baze’s silly friend for the occasion, and between their silly renditions of Wheels on the Bus and Ants Go Marching, they set the perfect tone for the show to follow. An interesting link between Baze, Miss Nina and me, is that Baze produced her newest album Every Day’s Your Birthday as well as our Lollipop Motel.

Anne from Painted Faces and Other Places paints a beautiful butterfly on Hoppin' Holly's face

Anne Malone from Painted Faces & Other Places. Photo by Bob Didner

Joann from the Old Mogul Theatre cooked up and served the concessions while Anne from Painted Faces and Other Places sponsored both the face painting and the arts & crafts activities, aided ably and happily by Margaret and Quin, two talented young artists she instructs. Quin also jumped in to make our boardwalk style games more of an authentic beach experience – when kids played the bowling game or shot a basket they won a colorful Hawaiian ‘lei’ necklace.

Jungle Gym Jam with Ron "Polka Dot!" Albanese singing "The Ultimate Frisbee" at Old Mogul Theatre in Montclair

Special guest Ron “POLKA DOT!” Albanese. Photo by Nicole Gray

Our live performance (which Joann called the best from us that she’d seen in years of booking us for the Crane Park Festival and other shows in town) was enhanced with the horn section of The Defending Champions and a special guest appearance by Ron “POLKA DOT!” Albanese on our duet “The Ultimate Frisbee.” Our harmony singer “Cowgirl Casey” McCleary completed a duet rendition of “Free to Be…You and Me” with The Defending Champions back onstage for that grand finale. “Awesome Amy” brought the house down with her puppetry portrayal of “Bruce” the Jersey Dinosaur. “Rockin’ Ross” Kantor and “Charming Chip” Moore created a rock-steady rhythm section that really drove the new tunes; we performed the new album in track order.

You can help St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with your Lollipop Motel album download purchase through May 31. We donate 50% of download proceeds to Chloe’s Friendship Circle’s Campaign! Please download today! 

We were especially happy to have members local and international children’s music media in attendance. NJ Mommy Blog creator Nicole brought her family along and had run a ticket giveaway leading up to the performance in her article previewing the event. Here’s NJ Mommy Blog’s review of both the live event and the album itself.

It was also an amazing privilege to be joined by 6-year-old podcasting phenom Chloe from Chloe’s Friendship Circle, along with her parents who co-write and produce the show and her little brother Brody. Chloe’s presence was extra special because she had inspired me to donate 50% of album download proceeds and 10% of CD sales proceeds to her campaign for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The audience seemed to appreciate our partnership, buying CD’s in good numbers to help the cause and take a little bit of summer with them wherever they go!

Hoppin' Holly and Grandma at the boardwalk-style bowling game we set up at the album launch party.

Let’s bowl! Photo by Bob Didner

Special thanks to my parents for being at so many of my shows since I was a kid, my friends Nicole & Allan, Naomi & Manny and their kids, who have been so kind and supportive of us as musicians and as people especially over the past year with all the unique challenges we’ve faced through our kidney transplant and its aftermath.

It sure was great to pretend a theatre in North Jersey was a Jersey Shore beach with the families in attendance. How does your family get involved in pretend play? Please comment below.

Media Spotlight – The Montclair Times

Our Hometown Paper Tells our Story While Shaping its Future

When I was in college I was the Associate News Editor of my twice-weekly college paper that had a circulation of over 12,000. I learned a lot about a journalist’s responsibility to inform the public. Later on I had some public relations experience where my responsibility was to highlight for journalists how covering a story that told our client’s story was good or interesting for the public. I’m aware that a free press doesn’t owe any company, organization, or kindie rock band, coverage.

But my hometown paper, The Montclair Times, has done a beautiful job telling our story, and by just doing that, influencing the direction of our story over the long run, for the past three years.

Gwen Orel, The Montclair Times' Arts Editor

Gwen Orel, The Montclair Times’ Arts Editor

When I first sat down with Gwen Orel, The Times’ Arts Editor, in the winter of early 2013, another story was originally on both our minds. My parody song “You Can’t Get There from Here in Jersey,” an ode to our state’s jughandle highway turnaround woes, was getting coverage in The New York Times and Action News Philadelphia because the NJ State Senate was considering a bill that would forbid the construction of new jughandles on future highway projects. My YouTube video view count for this song had gone way up. This was going to be the story in my interview with The Montclair Times.

But something new was beginning to happen. Amy and I had written a batch of educational, funny and silly songs for our almost 2-year-old daughter and we even landed a gig performing at Family Garden Day at Montclair’s Iris Gardens. We were starting to put a band together for the occasion.

Amy suggested we talk about the children’s music project when Gwen came over for the interview and even reminded me of it halfway through the interview about driving in Jersey. I believe this shift in the story marked a shift in our own story becoming a family band that makes music for kids and families. That day, Montclair Times photographer Adam Anik captured a picture of me seranading Amy and young Holly on our living room sofa.

The story we interviewed for in the winter of 2013 was put on hold until May, the week before our official debut performance at Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, at which time it was updated with the progress we’d made putting a band together and adding more gigs to the schedule and building up our musical repertoire accordingly. Here’s that article.

Gwen later picked up on our story that fall as we were working to complete our debut album Everyone’s Invited! and preparing for a concert at Montclair Public Library’s auditorium that fall. By this point, we had grown more confident in our ability to entertain children and we discussed with Gwen the differences between entertaining an adults-only audience and entertaining families. I talked about “not being afraid to go big” with showmanship to make it interesting for little ones. Read the story here.

Just a few months later, the release of our first album and the release party event to go with it were just around the corner. I had sent Gwen a press release; she told me that it would take a bit more to make our album release story newsworthy. She expressed that if she could observe us performing for kids prior to the release party, there would be a story in the live performance. So I scrambled for a coffeehouse or yogurt shop that could host an impromptu concert. These venues had prior commitments and couldn’t open their space to our show, but we got a break in the form of unusually warm weather for mid-January. So we decided to give a pop-up performance on the playground in Edgemont Park and Gwen came out to observe the show. We handed out maracas and performed a few songs acoustically. Gwen wrote about that occurrence in the context of an album review and a preview of the upcoming launch concert at Just Jake’s. This was clearly a case where Gwen’s telling of our story shaped our story, leading us to put on that pop-up concert specifically as part of our outreach through the press. Here’s the article about the release of “Everyone’s Invited!”

Bob Cannon, The Montclair Times' Community Editor

Bob Cannon, The Montclair Times’ Community Editor

In the year that followed, we began to expand our geographic area, traveling to New York, Delaware, Virginia and South Jersey. Hometown appearances became less frequent, creating fewer opportunities to reach out to The Times about newsworthy live performances. A major life-changing event for Amy and me put us back in touch with the paper. I had donated a kidney to Amy in the spring of 2015 when diabetic complications made her native kidneys unsustainable. I reached out to my friend Bob Cannon, who was now Community Editor with The Montclair Times. About a week after the surgery, Bob came to visit us in our home and interview us about our experience and how our marriage, our surgery and our endeavors to entertain kids together were all intertwined. You can read this touching human interest story here. Fun fact: Bob is a talented musician and, in fact, played mandolin on the record for our song “Mimi the Ladybug” on our first album.

Of course the impending need for the surgery slowed down our plans to release a summer album of Jersey Shore inspired beach music; we tabled that release for a full year, since it wouldn’t make sense to release the album in the fall. Just last week we followed through on our backup plan, releasing Lollipop Motelagain with the help of Gwen and The Times. To coincide with the worldwide launch of the album, we rented out the Old Mogul Theatre in Montclair and planned to bring the beach experience to the theatre, supplying boardwalk-style games and treats, as well as beach-themed crafts and face painting, to highlight our beachy new music.

Gwen came to meet us at the theatre a week before the show and interviewed not only Amy and me, but Kazim Mirza and Joann Smalls, the theatre’s co-owners, as well. In that interview, we discussed inspiration for the album and the way the kidney transplant affected our plans for the album. We talked about how we used the recovery time to get on with the songwriting. Joann and Kazim spoke of the Old Mogul Theatre’s role in Montclair’s history and how we put on a successful Family New Year’s Ball event to capture the spirit of what used to be First Night Montclair. You can read this latest story here.

Indeed, an artist’s relationship with the press has proven to affect his/her very artistry. After all, it was a music critic who wrote “I have seen rock-n-roll future and his name is Bruce Springsteen,” who went on to become his producer, coaxing the cinematic sounds of the Born to Run album out of The Boss. I’m not sure Gwen is going to drop everything she’s doing to become a record producer anytime soon, but she’s definitely had an impact on our music making for kids and families at several turns and we are the better for it.

Who tells your story? How does the very telling and sharing of your story impact your life’s story itself? Please comment below the article.

 

Give to St. Jude, Get a Beach Album Your Family Will Love!

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

We were so inspired by the work of a 6-year-old podcaster that we’ve decided to join forces with her. Chloe (Chloe’s Friendship Circle) has been podcasting for almost a year and has started a campaign to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. So every time you download our new album Lollipop Motel, we’ll donate 50% of the proceeds to Chloe’s fundraising drive for St. Jude’s.

St. Jude’s is unique because it’s not just a hospital for kids; it’s a hospital that through its foundation is able to assist families struggling to pay to maintain their kids’ health so they’re not worrying about a hospital bill on top of worrying about their children’s well being.

Lollipop Motel album cover - Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym JamLollipop Motel is a collection of fun, energetic rock-n-roll songs celebrating family vacation time at the beach, namely the Jersey Shore, inspired by the Jersey Shore’s most famous rock-n-roller, Bruce Springsteen and the folks who made the scene along with him, like Southside Johnny. You’ll get funny moments in songs like “Restless Heart” and “Jam Packed” to genuinely heartwarming moments like the fondly nostalgic “Lollipop Motel” title track. The sun-drenched “Day at the Beach” will whet your appetite for an actual day at the beach.

If you have an Apple device and prefer the simplicity of downloading music in iTunes, get your music here.

If you’re comfortable downloading ZIP files and copying them into your favorite music player, get your music right from my own web site.

Other download options include bandcamp (pay-what-you-want) or CD Baby (especially convenient if you already have an account with them), Amazon Music and Google Play Store.

Another very cool connection to St. Jude’s is that Lollipop Motel includes a cover of “Free to Be…You and Me,” the title track of the groundbreaking project by Marlo Thomas, who is the daughter of St. Jude’s founder Danny Thomas. So when you buy this album that concludes with “Free to Be…You and Me,” you’re helping one of Marlo’s favorite organizations too!

What are your favorite charities; what does it mean to you to give back to your community? Discuss in the comments below.