Monthly Archives: October 2015

So Much Love for Mr. Lou at the Stone Pony

Concert for Mr. Lou at Stone Pony Asbury Park NJNot everyone has his or her life celebrated publicly at one of the most revered music venues in all of New Jersey – a venue that people come to visit from around the world. Then again, not everyone is “Mr. Lou” DeMartino, a true rock-n-roll soul if ever there was one. This is a man whose passion for music animated every part of his body, every part of his face, and every part of his voice. He was excited to be there whether it was a basement rehearsal that required him to cram a dozen songs he’d just received on disc or a big bandshell stage a week after the cram session. He boosted the spirits of the musicians around him when rain kept the turnout low and he carried my heavy speaker system in and out of my house when I wasn’t yet medically cleared to lift anything just weeks after kidney transplant surgery.

Trolley ride at Turtle Back Zoo fundraiser with Jungle Gym Jam members Jason Didner, Ross Kantor and Mr. Lou DeMartinoYes, Lou’s rock-n-roll life sparked and reflected the spirits of thousands of music fans and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic and all the way north into Canada. And yesterday, hundreds of grateful friends and kindred spirits joined Lou’s longtime friend and bandleader Joe D’Urso in an amazingly heartfelt afternoon of tributes at the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ.

Joe D'Urso sings in memory of his longtime Stone Caravan band mate Mr. Lou DeMartino at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ on 10/25/15. Joe organized the event.

Joe D’Urso sings in memory of his longtime Stone Caravan band mate Mr. Lou DeMartino at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ on 10/25/15. Joe organized the event.

With the help of several dedicated friends, Joe put together a lineup of performers and speakers who had a special connection with Lou. My friends and family in the Jungle Gym Jam were honored to be among the performers. We sang “My Superpower,” one of four songs that Lou recorded with us in the studio during his time with us. This song will be released as a single in January in advance of a full album release in May that will include all four of Lou’s contributions. Seeing so many of Lou’s fans of all ages sing the main hook along with us and the lyrics “Kindness Is My Superpower!” was an uplift that helped me feel connected with all that Lou and I did together in our band in such a short time.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam perform My Superpower at Concert for Mr. Lou at Stone Pony 10/25/15

Photos by Anne Geyer

The love in that room was so strong that my 4-year-old daughter Holly, who had developed a fondness for Mr. Lou (often indicated with a shy smile when he’d come over to practice), picked right up on it and talked about Lou being in heaven and being her best friend ever. She rocked out high on my shoulders to Jon Caspi and the First Gun’s high energy punk rock offerings; she even rejected the earplugs I gave her. I’ll always remember the “Ring of Fire” dance that Holly and I improvised when their band covered Johnny Cash.

The heartfelt acoustic musical tributes came pouring in all day long from many of the Jersey Shore’s finest singer/songwriters. When Williams Honor took the stage, she said, “Daddy, can you put this music on my iPad?” Holly also stole the show when Amy, Casey, Holly and I took to the stage to perform “My Superpower.”

That love for Mr. Lou from across the ocean came in the form of a picture video of Lou’s last trip to Italy with Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan set to one of the band’s album tracks. It was displayed on the two large screen TV’s on the stage, introduced with lots of humor and heart by Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos’ fame.

Even the Sunday pasta lunch that was served was loaded with thoughtfulness of Lou’s life. As Joe D’Urso said, “Lou loved his pasta.” The big family style servings were cooked fresh in Rockland County on Sunday morning and driven down to Asbury Park and served steaming hot and delicious. We made new friends at our table over lunch and talked about our special mutual friend Lou.

The memorial concert was not just an important emotional event for so many friends and fans, but also a benefit to help Lou’s family cover his memorial expenses. Not only were fans generous in their contributions at the door, but the event itself had some financial hurdles to clear from the start and great friends to help accomplish that. The Dan Sullivan Foundation, the Light of Day Foundation and Asbury Angels teamed up to rent out The Stone Pony for the afternoon, Jason Dermer and his company Asbury Audio furnished the sound, the drums and the amplifiers (which all sounded amazing) and Posa-Posa restaurant in Nanuet, NY provided the benefit a great price break on the food.

Lou certainly left me wanting more of his friendship and his kindness, more of his musicality and his passion. I get sad when I think I can’t get that from the man himself anymore. But I’m uplifted when I’m reminded how many other people were drawn to him for the same things and are inspired by all that. I’m grateful to be part of a community that knows together what LLU means.

Evolving in the Craft of Children’s Music

Embracing where we started and celebrating the way we’ve built on it

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam's first full band gig in 2013 at Essex County Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Montclair, NJ.

Our first-ever full band gig in 2013. We played songs.

Over two years ago when we were a brand new act for kids and families, I was certain that we were about as good as we were going to get. We just needed to be discovered. We were writing rock songs for kids that their parents would love too. Our songs were critiqued by our new friends in the Children’s Music Network and re-written to everybody’s satisfaction. I thought at the time my number one concern was getting the word out about how awesome we were! The kids’ entertainment blogosphere and radio scene would surely herald our arrival on the scene with great fanfare.

What we got at the time was something else, something more important; I realize that a little more each day. Instead of a long parade of articles from independent blogs through People Magazine singing our praises, as they did our heroes Justin Roberts and Laurie Berkner, we found ourselves not quite making the cut in a field crowded with amazing talent. And many of the people whose attention we were vying for were leaving a growing trail of public clues as to what they were looking for.

Thought leaders on the kindie scene like Jeff Bogle (Out with the Kids), Stephan Shepherd (Zooglobble) and Bill Childs (Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child) were writing articles about the state of the industry and the kinds of children’s music submissions that were grabbing their attention – what they had in common. These three tastemakers were emphasizing the importance of storytelling and emotional depth in the children’s songs that they loved to share. They tend to shun the more purely academic or procedural educational songs that many children’s musicians create.

The first children’s song that Amy and I ever wrote for public consumption falls squarely in the educational category – “Five Sea Lions.” It teaches the difference between sea lions and seals (a touch of marine biology) and creates practice in counting down from five (early math) to a reggae/ska beat. It was never going to grab critical acclaim among those looking for epic storytelling.

But it did resonate with an important player on the children’s music scene – Rebecca Alison (Kids Can Groove, Little Cloud Management). So much so, that she chose to world premiere our video of the song. What that taught me was, once you create a work and set it free, it can affect different people in different ways. Rebecca lives in California and created some important memories with her own child sharing their enjoyment of the sea lions native to her home state. So a purely academic song took on an emotional component within the context of her life. We took a little chance sending this song to Rebecca and it worked out in this case. It just goes to show you have to put yourself out there, even early on in your career. Trevor from GooberKids Radio, Q Manor from Tots’ Radio, and Todd from Jelly Bean Radio were also feeling what we were doing from early on, as was Phil Maq from WHFR-FM in Dearborn, Michigan, who doesn’t distinguish adults’ from kids’ music as long as it’s “good music.”

Having an early taste of success like the world premiere with Rebecca can help keep you motivated as you develop your career, but shouldn’t become a reason to believe that all you need is more publicity. Likewise, not getting all the coverage and opportunities you want is not necessarily a reason to abandon what got you this far. It may help make the case for evolving rather than suddenly re-inventing yourself into what you think someone else wants. It would be a mistake for us in the Jungle Gym Jam to distance ourselves from an academic song like “Five Sea Lions” while claiming that an emotional story song like “Lollipop Motel” is all we’re going to do now. For me, evolving means embracing where we started and celebrating the way we’ve built on it.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam perform at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia in 2015

Over two years later, we’re playing venues nationally known for children’s music. We create moments around the songs we play.

If our songwriting has enjoyed a sort of evolution, so has our live show. I’ve had time to not only read live music producer Tom Jackson’s excellent “Live Music Method” but to absorb and apply it over time, emphasizing the creation of moments over merely the performance of songs. Attending KindieComm the past two years and experiencing the moments created by other artists also helped drive this point home to me, as did working one-on-one with Ron “Polka Dot” Albanese, a consummate children’s entertainer, who helped me not to become Polka Dot Jr. but to become a more fully realized Jungle Gym Jam guy. Our live show today is very different from our very first live show. Early on, we played the songs. We moved swiftly from one song to the next. Over time we started to take more seriously the interactive potential in introducing certain songs and the visual elements that could help unlock feelings of delight, like puppets.

Once we began introducing puppets into the act (we had seen them used sparingly and effectively by Justin Roberts to create moments as in “Willy was a Whale”), we started modestly with pre-made Folkmanis puppets. They were high quality, small puppets sized appropriately for the classroom, but not the big stage. They served us well for several months. Also, Amy did not have a clearly defined role on the stage other than to put on one of these puppets and go out into the audience during songs like “Five Sea Lions” or “Mimi the Ladybug.” We later started having young volunteers work the puppets (if we could find one who didn’t have a touch of stage fright).

As Amy took a greater interest in playing percussion instruments in the group, her role evolved and she became the go-to person for all the puppet moments. She started coming up with voices and mannerisms for the characters. I was also becoming acquainted with a great puppet maker (and puppeteer) by the name of Chris Palmieri, who custom made spectacularly large sea lion, moon, ladybug, dinosaur and Santa puppets for our stage show. I’m not sure that the visual component of our show would have come out as well as it did had we just quickly mimicked Justin Roberts, the Pop Ups or other acts that make great use of visuals. We needed to watch those acts, learn, digest, and over the course of time, figure out what moments and visual cues best apply to our show in an authentic and entertaining way.

Jason and Amy from Jungle Gym Jam create a fun and learning moment about how to tell a sea lion from a seal.

Amy and I create a fun and educational moment around how to tell a sea lion from a seal.

Amy and I also understood that our record-making would have to evolve as well. Our debut album “Everyone’s Invited” had done well in earning a Parents’ Choice Approved seal, which helped sell hundreds of copies to schools and libraries. It’s the source of some of our great live moments on the stage, and we still enjoy listening to the album in the car almost 2 years later. Now, with the songwriting and song selection evolving to include a stronger emotional connection, we needed to make sure those feelings would translate to the record. For this, we chose Marc Bazerman, leader of Baze and His Silly Friends and producer of Suzi Shelton’s heartwarming “Smile in my Heart” album. We also chose Suzi to duet with me on “Free to Be…You and Me,” a song that connected me with the feelings of my own childhood and the signal to the kindie community that our band was entering a new stage of its development. This single found some of the coveted airplay that had eluded us with the first album.

If we’re evolving as songwriters, live performers and makers of records, we’re also evolving as people. We’re more attuned to what our audience wants, where we can fit into the industry, and how to go about this way of life. This is the kind of growth that can only happen over the course of years and can’t be rushed. I believe it can be accelerated. Two years and change is not a very long time for us to have developed to the point we have. Factors like attending KindieComm (where we learned much from other artists and industry professionals and established relationships) for two years straight tend to act as career development accelerants – developing both craft and connections. Paying attention to what your audience is trying to tell you is another career accelerant. Having both a mom and a wife with early childhood education expertise also provided valuable insight into what could work well for our young audience members.

If I were to give a new children’s artist just one piece of advice right now, it would be this: Seek out other people in the industry – not so they’ll discover you and shower you with praise and top-paying gigs – but so being around them will help you evolve as a children’s artist who will ultimately attract the praise and the livelihood.

I’d love for you to join the discussion about evolving as a person, a professional or an artist, in the space below! Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Studio Update – October 2015

The Making of the Jungle Gym Jam album “Lollipop Motel”

Drummer Ross Kantor and bassist Sean Wolfle listen back to their handiwork on Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam's Lollipop Motel album.
It was a very good night in the studio for the Jungle Gym Jam as we completed the last of the basic tracks (bass and drums) for our upcoming album “Lollipop Motel.” Our three newest songs have gone over great with kids and families at our live shows: “Jersey Dinosaurs,” “Restless Heart” and the title track, “Lollipop Motel.”

We recorded in Caldwell at Homefront Studios with owner/sound engineer Matt Ryan, leader of a killer New Jersey band called The Defending Champions. Producer Marc “Baze” Bazerman did a great job eliciting pleasing sounds out o Matt’s engineering skills and equipment and coaxing energetic performances out of drummer Ross Kantor, bassist Sean Wolfle and me.

Matt Ryan, owner of Homefront Studios, operates the sound recording software on his Apple Macintosh computer, capturing drum and bass sounds for the Jungle Gym Jam album Lollipop Motel. Of course my singing and guitar playing recorded in the studio that night will be replaced by parts I will later record in my home, one layer at a time. Our priority in the studio was to make sure that all the parts were well separated and could be controlled individually when we mix them all together in the end. So, since several microphones were being used to capture the drum sounds, there could be no other microphones in the room for other things like vocals or a live guitar amplifier.

This song needs More Cowbell! Amy adds a driving rhythm to the Jungle Gym Jam album Lollipop MotelWhen Marc passes the bass and drum parts back to me I’ll get crankin’ on those guitar parts and vocals using my laptop. I’ll also add some keyboard layers with the sounds of pianos, organs and other interesting textures. we’re also considering adding a saxophone solo to the song “Lollipop Motel.” Of course, “Restless Heart” needs more cowbell!

Summertime Santa will be the next Jungle Gym Jam single, released November 2, 2015.Our plan is to release this summer/beach themed album in the middle of May 2016 as the summer season starts ramping up. The first single from the album was released last Fall and was well received – our version of “Free to Be…You and Me” featuring Suzi Shelton and marking my recording debut on saxophone. Our new single “Summertime Santa” from the upcoming album is poised to make a big splash on children’s radio as we ready it for release on November 2.

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

Photo by Bob Didner

On Sunday, October 25 we will participate in a special memorial concert for Mr. Lou DeMartino at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Lou was our bass player starting this past spring until his shocking, untimely death in July. We will perform “My Superpower” from the new album – a song that happens to describe the type of kindness that Lou wielded like a superhero’s power. Lou’s bass playing is on this track, along with 3 other tracks. “My Superpower” will be the next single released after “Summertime Santa;” the heroic power-pop anthem is slated for a January debut and is enhanced with the wonderful synth parts contributed by Liz “The Singing Lizard” DeRoche.

Next month I should be able to tell you about more special guests appearing on the album and update you on the progress of making the record.

Philadelphia – Where Kids Rock Out with their Grown-ups!

by Jason Didner, leader of the Jungle Gym Jam rock band for kids and families

Jason and Holly rocking out at World Cafe Live in Wilmington, DelawareOver two years ago my wife Amy and I started out on a quest to create and share children’s music that expressed our then-baby-daughter’s sense of wonder and love for rock-n-roll in our brand new kindie project we called the Jungle Gym Jam. The pathways of that quest kept leading us back to Philadelphia, PA over and over again.

From our home base in northern New Jersey (in the suburbs of New York City), my earliest searches for places where children’s music is happening kept coming back with Philadelphia. The Peanut Butter and Jams concert series at the World Cafe Live repeatedly showed up as a booking to strive for. I’d see some premiere names in the children’s music game show up as performers scheduled to play there. Radio shows like WXPN Kids Corner in Philly were ones where I’d want my music played so families could hear it.

The Philly-based children’s musicians I’ve come across, like The Plants, Two of a Kind, Jonathan Sprout, Steve Pullara and his Cool Beans Band and Mr. David C. Perry were advancing the art form of children’s music each in their own way — The Plants with energetic, upbeat funk productions, Two of a Kind with their gentle and approachable style and the way they incorporate sign language into their songs, Jonathan Sprout’s proud way of singing about real-life heroes, Steve Pullara’s epic collaborative efforts to bring together children’s musicians at all levels of career development to put together stunning compilation albums for kids, and David C. Perry’s knack for embracing the silly to combine comedy, kids’ music and visual art.

The list of traveling children’s musicians from all over the U.S.A. and Canada who perform in Philadelphia’s venues reads like a “Who’s Who” of children’s music. At places like the Please Touch Museum, Longwood Gardens, the Philadelphia Zoo and, of course, World Cafe Live, you can see and hear GRAMMY Award winners and nominees, children’s multimedia wizards, and rock stars who have successfully branched out to make music for kids and families. One truly amazing band, Recess Monkey traveled all the way from their home base in the kindie stronghold of Seattle to Philly to stage their album release party. That says something about the strength of the children’s music scene in the City of Brothery Love.

A cool thing about Longwood Gardens: it’s high on the list “55 Stunning Botanical Gardens You Really Need to See Before You Die.” on Sproutabl. Go for the kindie music, stay for those amazing fountains!

A big shift in the East Coast children’s music scene began turning our hopes of connecting with Philadelphia into a reality. Just as we were about to play our first-ever gig in 2013, we learned at the last minute about a children’s music career event that would take place in New York City, called KindieFest. I felt it would be helpful to attend as newcomers to the scene, but that I couldn’t take time off work last-minute for it. I told myself, “Next year, we’ll attend.”

A few months later, I learned there wouldn’t be a “next year” for KindieFest – it had dissolved before we ever got to attend. But then came the announcement that Kids Corner at WXPN Philly would host its own new children’s music community conference that would be called KindieComm! And it would be at the World Cafe Live, that venue we dreamed of one day playing. Amy and I took the leap of faith, amid an uncertain family health situation, and booked the hotel room. For the first time as a children’s music act, we were Philly bound – not to perform, but to transform our online social connections with the kindie community into a living, in-person involvement with performers, radio hosts, TV programmers, publicists and journalists all talking passionately about the current and possible future state of children’s music. We also learned a great deal from watching the conference’s showcase performers tear it up – we learned much about how to make a greater visual impact, ways of eliciting audience participation – all that stuff in kids’ music that matters much more than which guitar effects pedal you use. A second year attending KindieComm just deepened our relationships in the community and our understanding of what makes a great children’s music performance and more importantly, a great experience for the families in attendance.

I was fortunate to be introduced to the booking manager of the World Cafe Live’s other location – the historic Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, where we gave two memorable performances for kids and their grown-ups, both at well attended events. And then a very cool thing happened; the manager we were working with in Delaware took over the booking of the kids’ shows in Philadelphia as well. And now we’re less than a week away from our first performance at this magnificent showplace!

I hope to meet you at the World Cafe Live on October 10 for the Philadelphia debut of Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam!

>> Get your tickets here for Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia for Saturday October 10 at 11 AM!

Please share your favorite experiences with children’s music in and around Philadelphia in the comments below.

Musically yours,

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam