We’re More of a Family Band Every Day!

Jason, Amy and Holly Didner are the core of the Jungle Gym - for kids & families who love to rock!
Since Amy and I founded the Jungle Gym Jam back in 2013 when Holly was just 2 years old, we’ve been constantly evolving as a creative family and as a band. Amy’s original role was as a behind-the-scenes “educational consultant,” drawing on her experience as a teacher to ensure our songs would be as enriching as possible for young minds. Her co-writing of our lyrics was really her place to shine.

Even in our earliest of performances, my daughter Holly, ever the Daddy’s girl, was always happier being close to me, on the stage, than removed from me, out in the audience. So, she would be perfectly content to be standing onstage munching her snacks, not too concerned with the fact that all eyes were on her. For me this was fine because it genuinely represented an authentic family act that was demonstrating “This is how music brings my family together! It can bring yours together too!”

As our music, our reputation, our marriage and our daughter continued to grow, Amy and I found our relationship with the concept of Jungle Gym Jam music evolving too. Over these past 2 years, Amy, Holly and I have watched lots of live children’s bands interact among themselves and with the families in the audience, each in unique and engaging ways. Seeing this sparked ideas and conversations among us to build more interactivity into our shows. Amy was emerging as a natural co-facilitator of this interaction in our shows. We tried having her be a “guest puppeteer” for a song or two and she enjoyed it. Her performance went over well with the kids in the audience too. But that created the issue of Holly now being at a remove from both her parents while we’re onstage.

jason-amy-holly-bike-ww-boardwalk-2014So last summer we tried something new. I brought home ukuleles for Amy and Holly. Amy learned some chords and Holly simply strummed along without concern for the chords (and without enough volume to cause dissonance with the song’s melody). We performed as a true family trio at Eatontown and Sea Girt Public Libraries on our mini-tour of the Jersey shore. Amy and Holly were essentially “guest artists” for one song at the time.

Flash forward several months and a new idea emerged: I picked up cajon drums (box drums that you sit on and play the front surface) for Amy and Holly in time for our featured concert performance at First Roots Studio in Manville last month. Amy’s musical strength turns out to be her impeccable internal sense of rhythm, giving me a rock-solid foundation from which to play guitar and sing. The fact that she would now be onstage for most (or all) of the show now put her in a great position to add some banter and interactivity to the show. Now it was all coming together: the puppet appearances, the dialogue, the musical enhancements. Now that Holly is also onstage playing a drum, she gets to be close to Mom & Dad throughout the show and is very secure with us. She’s also showing some leadership among the kids in attendance. She kindly but firmly warns other kids to leave our equipment alone and stay away from speakers that could fall on them, etc. Apparently, she saves her own youthful recklessness for when she’s at home.

Of course, when you involve your own 4-year-old child in your act, there is a necessary sense of giving up the idea of perfection and control; the spirit of her onstage presence is more important than a virtuoso performance or even the predictability of knowing what instrument she’s in the mood to play, or how long will she be comfortable in her own place onstage before she prefers to just cuddle with Mommy while I play on. But knowing my family, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Jason and Holly rocking out at World Cafe Live in Wilmington, DelawareAt this time, we offer two versions of the Jungle Gym Jam – the family acoustic trio – the Von Trapp traveling family troubador version of what we do — and then there’s the electric version, a little more reminiscent of the Van Halen family! As always, “Rockin’ Ross” Kantor powers this version with his great drum talent. New bassist “Low-note Lou” DeMartino, a mainstay of the Jersey Shore music scene, glues the rhythm to the chord structures with his tasty basslines. Rounding out our sound is “Cowgirl Casey” McCleary whose vocal harmonies always add a touch of class and her multi-instrumental versatility adds delightful textures to our sound and even gives me the opportunity to put the guitar down and give a little puppet show of my own while I sing. In the full-band version of our show, Amy and Holly tend to make an appearance for a few songs, creating a special and memorable moment and a touch of variety.

Some of my favorite family experiences since forming the band are based on our out-of-town travel. When we’re on the road, staying overnight in a hotel the night before the show, it really does feel like a working vacation, one where we’re all working toward the same goal. The daily grind of home life seems further away and we do feel like we’re on a mission, pursuing a dream, and bringing joy and enrichment to families who live in different places.

My music making has always been a family business in a way, long before it was ever a business. My parents, who used to come to almost all my school band and chorus performances when I was a kid, are frequent travel companions of ours, offering moral support, photography, videography, marketing and additional fun and comfort for Holly while I take on the setup and sound check responsibilities.

junglegymjam-family-bow-firstrootsSome of our gigs near home are starting to take on that feel of a tour/vacation, especially when we play in a local town we’ve never been to before. Last weekend we played at Liberty Savings Federal Credit Union in Union City, NJ. This is a nearby town with strong ties to Cuban heritage. The “Cuban Sandwich Queen” restaurant right next door caught my attention as we were loading in for the morning’s performance. Sure enough, after the gig it was lunchtime; Amy and Holly were game to try something new, so we went in, Holly tried (and really liked) her first Cubano sandwich and Amy remarked how much doing this gig felt like a traveling vacation type of gig. The nice sunny, warm weather didn’t hurt that notion any.

You can learn more about our performance schedule, which happily includes more travel and visits to new places, at http://junglegymjam.com/tour.

jason-holly-back-to-back-eatontownI’m also offering three free songs for your family’s enjoyment on-the-go at http://njkindiemusic.com/free-tracks.

I believe that every job or business is in some way a “family business.” How have your pursuits of your life’s purpose involved your family? Please comment below.

Musically yours,


April 23 is Children’s Day! We’re celebrating at My Kinder Club in Edgewater.

Children's Day in the Republic of TurkeyApril 23 is a special day every year in the Republic of Turkey and for families of Turkish descent. It’s the anniversary of Turkey establishing its own parliament and a day to celebrate the children of Turkey and the world. One special custom that takes place in Turkey is that the children are symbolically in charge in Parliament that day. Since 1979 when the celebration expanded to include children of the world, Turkey has been inviting kids from other countries to stay in Turkish families and take part in the festivities, which include huge stadium concerts.

This year on Thursday morning, April 23 this fabulous new indoor playground, My Kinder Club in Edgewater, will celebrate Children’s Day with a super-fun play day, crafts, treats and live music by Amy and me! An admission price of $20 per child includes full access to the play space and the special concert of children’s music. My family’s original songs will teach your kids about counting, sea lions, ladybugs and the moon. Then there are songs that will tell funny stories, like one about a tightly packed car ride on the family trip. The kids will get to sing and dance along with our fun, upbeat music.

Just as in modern-day Turkish tradition, we’re inviting families of all nationalities to come out and celebrate a fun day filled with live music, active play and more.

Learn more about My Kinder Club at www.mykinderclub.com

A Brilliant Way of Sharing Music with Kids at First Roots Manville

junglegymjam-family-bow-firstrootsWhen the Jungle Gym Jam brought the house down last summer at Hillsborough, NJ Public Library and the rave reviews spread through the neighboring towns, Jennifer Esposito was paying attention. She reached out to me the next day and asked if I would perform at the grand opening of her new school location in Manville. I was happy to do the honors and even happier still that my daughter, now 4, would get to meet Frozen’s Queen Elsa at the event! My wife Amy, who co-writes lyrics with me, and our daughter, joined me on ukuleles for a performance of “Five Sea Lions.” A wonderful grand opening event and performance led to new ideas. And then Jennifer came up with something truly brilliant…

Jennifer had been learning by experience that the field of early childhood musical learning centers was a crowded one with lots of franchised regional and national programs that are delivered in a consistent way whether you’re in one location or another. She had been under such a franchise which wasn’t working for her way of doing business. So she went 100% independent, coming up with her own curriculum. It was a bold move, but Jennifer was missing a way of helping public easily understand what set her program apart.

Jennifer Esposito leading a First Roots music & movement activity at Hillsborough Public LibraryJennifer and I had a few back-and-forth discussions that lead to this breakthrough idea: Every semester of her school would feature the music of a working “kindie” band in the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. She’d give out CD’s and songbooks from that band at the start of the semester and she’d offer special music and movement activities centered around that band’s songs. Kids attending the class would hear a combination of recorded tracks by the featured band and Jennifer covering that band’s songs. Then at the end of that semester, the band would give a live, featured performance in her studio. Brilliant! This was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in an early childhood music learning center and a great distinction to offer the area’s kids & families.

I had the honor of being the first featured kindie artist over this semester that is now drawing to a close and, on Saturday afternoon March 14, I will give a performance at First Roots Music Studio.

More kindie artists will be featured over the coming semester, including Baze and His Silly Friends.

If your family lives in or around Manville, I’d love to see you there!

– Jason

Imagine That!!! Back to Where It All Began!

A Performance of Kids’ Songs at the Children’s Museum Where They Were First Heard

by Jason Didner, children’s musician, creator of the Jungle Gym Jam

Jason performs solo acoustic at Imagine That!!! Children's MuseumTwo years ago we were celebrating my daughter Holly’s 2nd birthday in the party room at Imagine That!!! – A New Jersey Children’s Museum in Florham Park. Holly’s three cousins were there to party along with her. Lunch was eaten and it was time for some entertainment. I had brought my acoustic guitar along with me and something happened for the first time.

There was this new batch of songs that Amy and I had written about new experiences in Holly’s life, like her sighting of a ladybug on the ceiling or her fascination with the disappearing, reappearing moon in the sky. We were playing these songs around the house, but they hadn’t yet been performed publicly. That all changed at Holly’s party. Holly and her cousins were up and boppin’ around to these brand new, kid-friendly tunes. This was my first-ever performance of Jungle Gym Jam music in a public place – at Imagine That!!!

I would go on to give more performances there, playing in the next three semi-annual Mommy-and-Me meetup events that the museum hosts. This is where I’ve made some important fan connections, especially for one family who later traveled all the way from Livingston to Eatontown to see me perform last summer!

So I was very pleased when Karisa from Imagine That!!! (who happened to have worked with me to put together my daughter’s birthday party) invited me back for a return performance at next week’s Mommy-and-Me meetup, happening March 4. I will be the featured performer in the museum’s very cheerful and colorful puppet theater.

You can bet that I’ll be calling on those very same songs that were brand new when I played them at Holly’s 2nd birthday party, like “Mimi the Ladybug,” “Peek-a-boo Moon” and “Five Sea Lions.” You and the kids will also hear new music I’m working on for a new album planned for a summer release. There will be lots of interaction and opportunities to bond with your child over this music.

Admission to the museum on Mommy-and-Me Day is half-price and you’ll have chances to win great prizes for the family. This popular event also features a clever combination of family-friendly vendors who you’re sure to get really good value out of meeting in-person.

Your kids will have full access to a wonderfully stimulating museum that includes a real airplane, fire truck and car that have been converted to interactive exhibits. There are lots more opportunities for pretend play in the pretend grocery store, post office, doctor’s office, dance studio and more.

Plus, one of the CD’s that has remained in the museum’s stereo/CD changer over the past year is my album, “Everyone’s Invited!” which I will offer in a raffle basket you can win that day, and I will have available for purchase.

Get your Imagine That!!! Mommy-and-Me Meetup Tickets Here.

Download three free Jersey rock-inspired kids’ songs that I recorded here.

The Infinite Varieties of Children’s Music

Here’s How to Thrive on Broadening Your Kids’ Cultural Horizons

By Jason Didner, kindie rock musician, children’s concert promoter

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam captivate the kids at Maxwell's Tavern in Hoboken, NJWhen you think of the term “children’s music,” what comes to mind?

Now I can’t speak for you but as a dad, I can tell you what used to come to my mind and what changed. Back when my daughter was about 1 year old (she’s now turning 4), my instincts on children’s music were to think of nursery rhyme songs, sung by groups of kids, or the soundtracks to PBS Kids and Disney Jr. shows. Of course, images of a certain purple dinosaur came to mind as well.

Thinking back on it, I must have been helping Holly develop her musical tastes on 2 different tracks – music my wife and I love like The Beatles (every Sunday morning), Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Van Halen, and then music we felt she should be learning to have a common understanding with other children, like the nursery rhyme songs.

At the time I had a hint that educational music for kids was out there that also rocked. My brother in Brooklyn had invited Amy and me to see Rolie Polie Guacamole perform Beatles songs along with their own quirky, funny kids’ songs at Stone House Park. Amy and I didn’t have children of our own at the time, but we were happy to accompany our baby niece on outings like this. My mom had sprung for a Rolie Polie Guacamole CD that we’d have handy when a child finally came into the picture. RPG turned out to be our first kindie concert. I wasn’t aware at the time that they were part of a movement; they existed in my mind as an isolated incident.

It must have occurred to me, having grown up on “Free to Be…You and Me” and “Schoolhouse Rock” that there were people making music all along since my childhood that helped tell stories and pass learning along to kids without patronizing them musically, and without annoying the grown-ups.

But as I became aware of some very unique and original music for kids and families, starting with Laurie Berkner and Justin Roberts, it soon dawned on me that kindie artists didn’t have to be limited by genre like more mainstream artists usually do. There are so many genre varieties in kindie: country, rap, hip hop, jazz, rock, punk, powerpop, funk and more. Often, an artist will create kindie songs in different genres all on one record – sometimes even over the course of one song!

Certain kindie artists come to mind who excel at a specific genre and sort of “own it.” For rap, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Mista Cookie Jar and the Alphabet Rockers come to mind right away. If you want rap where you never have to worry about profanity or messages glorifying poor life decisions, check these artists out. They share childhood joys, celebrate thinking outside the box and teach reading & math skills in rap –really, really good rap – rhythmically strong, with clever, intricate rhymes. We may want to cringe when we think about amateurish attempts to rap lessons for kids that come out more like rigid readings of simple poetry, but you’ve gotta hear the rap of these 3 artists, especially. And they often pop up on other artists’ records in very interesting collabs across genres.

In the world of kindie jazz, check out Jazzy Ash, whose ancestral home of New Orleans had a deep influence on her sound. Her lyrics teach about New Orleans culture and share childhood stories and experiences, all while keeping that festive Dixieland sound cookin’. Lori Henriques offers the sophisticated sounds of piano jazz while unleashing her inner joy so it may catch on with the families who are listening. Lucy Kalantari brings the sensibility of the Roaring ’20s to her happy-go-lucky song collection for the younger set.

If your taste is in punk, you’ll see your kids blow out a lot of energy dancing around to the stylings of The Boogers, Ratboy Jr. and The Not-its! There’s something about the energy of punk music that’s a natural fit with kids; I could just picture them bouncing around as if on pogo sticks, so I wrote “Jungle Gym Jamming” to that tempo to encourage lots of energetic movement.

Then there’s an artist like Joanie Leeds, who, over the course of one album will croon an original jazz number, give you a country hoedown, rock out with blistering intensity, share a sweet singer/songwriter ballad and help the kids get down with a heavy funk number.

Reggae and its uptempo sub-genre, ska, work particularly well in children’s music, creating a sunny, happy vibe that can carry a family through a day. It’s very popular as a color in many kindie artists’ palettes, used to great effect by Josh and the Jamtones, Yosi, Laurie Berkner and Rolie Polie Guacamole. My first Jungle Gym Jam song was a reggae number and after having seen Josh and the Jamtones in action, I was inspired to arrange another of my songs with a reggae/ska beat.

There’s so much to like in today’s kindie music that will open your children up to liking lots and lots of musical genres and songs created and produced from the artists’ heart to your family’s hearts, without being distorted by multinational entertainment conglomerates and focus groups. This is kindie. And as a dad, I love this stuff so much for my own kids that I’ve thrown myself into it professionally as well.

Comment below with your thoughts about the diversity of the kindie movement and all the genres it spans.

Would you like to get some free kindie music? Follow this link to get a free three-pack of kindie songs from my own Jungle Gym Jam project for your family’s enjoyment right now!