Not Just a Music Store – A Music Community

Sam Ash in Springfield, NJ Brings Musicians Together

Any retailer can become a machine interested in nothing more than pushing products on unsuspecting customers, whether they actually need them or not, beholden only to a bottom line, not sincerely to the customer’s happiness or success, as long as the customer’s money is green.

Sam Ash general manager George Ringney

Sam Ash General Manager George Ringney

This is most decidedly not the case at Sam Ash Music Store in Springfield, NJ. General Manager George Ringney and I had struck up a conversation months ago when I learned that he too was in the kids’ music game as I am now. He and I performed at some of the same venues including Bronx Zoo.

George and his staff have always been helpful and forthright in advising me in the direction of the right gear for my needs, sometimes persuading me away from higher-priced accessories when lower-priced ones will do just fine.

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

Photo by Bob Didner

But the greatest help I was given was in completing our band – twice. Last spring I posted a “Bassist Wanted” flyer which, incredibly, resulted in a store employee, Joe D’Urso & Stone Caravan’s longtime bassist Mr. Lou DeMartino, replying to the ad and joining the band until his very sudden and unexpected death last month. When I saw his Facebook page filling up with “Rest In Peace” messages I was just stunned and shocked. I had no clue what had happened to my new friend. So I called George at Sam Ash and he was able to clue me in on what I needed to know to get some closure. I, in turn, shared with George the details of the memorial arrangements when I learned them.

If there’s one thing I came to know about Lou, it’s how passionate he was for live performance and how much he’d want the show to go on. So after our former bassist Alyssa Menes graciously (and happily) stepped in as a sub for our Bronx Zoo shows the very next weekend, our search was on in earnest for a successor for Lou – not a replacement, because such a thing is just not possible.

Sam Ash Music Store in Springfield, NJI returned to Sam Ash with a new Bassist Wanted flyer that mentioned that we needed a successor to the Late, Great Mr. Lou DeMartino. George and his associates kindly encouraged me to post the new sign on the bulletin board. But then I learned George took it a step further. He struck up a conversation with Sean Wolfle, one of the store’s multi-instrumental teachers, about Lou and about our band. He encouraged Sean to contact us, which he did. Sean knew and liked Lou, which helped us feel a sense of continuity in doing one of the hardest things a band has to do – carry on without a beloved member.

So, when my guitar amplifier I had used for the last 3 years (purchased at another store and just past its warranty expiration) acted more and more erratically and with some big shows coming up, I knew it was time to get a new amp. My decision to return to Sam Ash – part of my music community – was easy in shopping for the new amp. After trying out a few amps and finding their features close, but not exact, to my needs, I asked Dave at the guitar desk for his advice. Dave and Lou were friends, kindred spirits. Dave is a veteran musician and knows the gear the way a musician knows it – not as “technology for technology’s sake” but what sounds right, what you can trust when you’re playing in a big bandshell and your guitar tone decides whether families stick around to hear more songs or they move along because something doesn’t sound quite right.

Dave guided me to a Blackstar Stage 60 tube amp. This amp is powered by vacuum tubes – just like the TV sets of the 50s and 60s! The tubes give the guitar tone a warmth that’s only been duplicated with mixed success in the digital age. Those classic British Marshall amps used by Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and so many other rock legends used tubes. In fact, Blackstar is made up of audio engineers who used to work for Marshall, but wanted to expand the variation of guitar tones beyond the set standards that Marshall had established back in the 60s. When I plugged into this amp and started playing Jungle Gym Jam songs – rhythm parts and solos, everything sounded and felt right about the guitar parts in a way they never quite did with the old amp. I’ve loved every gig I’ve played since we founded the Jungle Gym Jam, but especially at the biggest gigs, I felt like I was fighting my old amp over the tones and other strange unpredictable things that the more digital amp would throw at me.

I ended up purchasing the Blackstar amp, getting a floor-model discount and practicing with it last night, working out the subtleties of the tones I want for the Jones Beach concert this coming Tuesday night.

I’m very glad that when I stop in at Sam Ash in Springfield, I’m not just a salesperson’s easy mark. I’m a member of a community – a musical community. You can find this store location online here.

Do you shop at Sam Ash in Springfield, NJ or any other location? What is your experience like there? Are your kids showing an early interest in musical instruments? Please comment in the space below.

Introducing Sensational Sean Wolfle!

We’re pleased to introduce “Sensational Sean” Wolfle as the Jungle Gym Jam’s new bassist! It’s fitting that he knew and liked Mr. Lou DeMartino from when they worked together at Sam Ash. Sean is also no stranger to the kindle world. He was the bassist for Rebecca Frezza and Big Truck, a band that inspired us to rock out for kids & families! Sean will join us starting at Jones Beach Boardwalk Bandshell next Tuesday evening.

Sample some of Sean’s multi-instrumental talent right here:

Jersey Dinosaurs song – live from Haddonfield, NJ

On our little tour through South Jersey last week, “Awesome Amy” gave me the very best souvenir imaginable — videotaping my performance of our new song “Jersey Dinosaurs” in front of the landmark Hadrosaurus Foulkii statue in Haddonfield, NJ – the town where this species of dinosaur was unearthed – the most complete dinosaur and the first in North America to be found. “Hoppin’ Holly” adds a great rhythm part on claves.

The bandana and the musical/showmanship style are indeed a nod to The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, that legendary champion of all things Jersey.

And before we even arrived home from the trip, prominent NJ music critic Jay Lustig had already included this tune in his 350 Songs about New Jersey, celebrating our home state’s 350th birthday.

You can read that story here.

The song is also a salute to my friend “Mr. Lou” DeMartino (a.k.a. “Low Note Lou”) who left us all too soon, the day after practicing this tune with me for the only time.

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!)