Category Archives: Children’s entertainment industry

A Rainy Party for the Planet at Turtle Back Zoo

Five North Jersey Family Music Acts and their Fans Brave the Elements on Earth Day 2017

Miss Nina entertains in the rain at Turtle Back Zoo's Party for the Planet - Earth Day 2017

Turtle Back Zoo 2017

WEST ORANGE, NJ – This year on Earth Day, nature reminded us that it is still in charge and will do its thing regardless of our plans – and doesn’t even owe us the predictability of a forecast. Still an enthusiastic audience stuck around on that rainy day to hop, jump, freeze-dance and sing along with five of north Jersey’s top family-friendly music acts to celebrate Earth Day at Essex County Turtle Back Zoo last Saturday.

And I got to witness outstanding professionalism from all the acts I worked with to make this festival happen: from my own band the Jungle Gym Jam, along with The Fuzzy Lemons, Miss Nina, Baze & His Silly Friends and Music with Molly. Everyone dug down deep under tough conditions to treat those hardy families to the show they stood out in the rain to see and hear.

Jason from the Jungle Gym Jam with superfans Erin and Josh

Turtle Back Zoo 2017

These families took an unusual opportunity to show just how much all this music meant to them – by staying through it all. One such family, Erin and her son “Jammin’ Josh” have attended several of our live shows and webcasts over the past 2 years, and arrived in time to catch the first act and they stayed through the whole soggy affair to see us finish out the day! My brother Matt & sister-in-law Danielle piled their two kids in the car from Brooklyn to see us do our thing. Families of many of the performers were there to lend moral support no matter how wet it got out there. My daughter made new friends that day and got to dance with her cousins and close friends. My parents, who have rarely missed one of my shows since I was a boy, were there early to help keep my daughter entertained through the intense process of setting up the festival; my mom zipping around in a motor scooter and finding dry overhangs where she could. It was a real sense of community.

The zoo’s newly renovated amphitheater now featured sun canopies that also appeared to mitigate the rain on the stage and parts of the audience area. But some heavy bursts of rain challenged the canopy and caused the center to sag and pour rain on the musical equipment. Ross, the Jungle Gym Jam’s drummer and Dave Lambert, the Fuzzy Lemons’ lead guitarist, invented a brilliant workaround, using cymbal stands and my spare set of speaker poles, to prop up the center of the canopy and stop the excess water from pouring onto the stage. At first they held up those stands during Miss Nina’s set, until their arms got tired and brilliant inventiveness took over for physical effort.

Music with Molly performs at the Turtle Back Zoo's Party for the Planet - Earth Day 2017

Turtle Back Zoo 2017. Photo by Erin Ackerman

Then there was the music! Molly Dorsman, creator of Music with Molly, kicked things off with a sampling of the interactive early childhood music & movement classes that get her such rave reviews from the Montclair Playgroup parents. A highlight was when Molly got the grown-ups up and dancing too with her peppy cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” Unsurprisingly, Molly brought a large and spirited following along with her.

Baze & His Silly Friends at Turtle Back Zoo's Party for the Planet - Earth Day 2017

Turtle Back Zoo 2017. Photo by Erin Ackerman

Next up, Baze & His Silly Friends took to the stage as a duo of Marc “Baze” Bazerman and rock-solid bassist Jim Goodwin on stand-up bass and acoustic guitar. Baze elicited lots of audience participation with his “Poor Mother Goose” mix-up of popular nursery rhymes – and encouraged jumping, spinning and stomping among the younger set in the crowd.

Miss Nina created some touching moments during the heaviest of the rainfall, like when her husband Tucker and their 4-year-old daughter hopped onstage to provide the visual aids to her ever-popular musical rendition of the children’s picture book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” Her joyous spirit certainly helped give families a reason to stick it out through the toughest moments of the day, weather-wise. Just when she consulted with some fellow performers and me about whether to continue the show, the rain let up to a fine mist and she powered through the rest of her set.

The Fuzzy Lemons at Turtle Back Zoo's Party for the Planet 2017

Turtle Back Zoo 2017

We opted for a bit of a “rain delay” before the Fuzzy Lemons, the first full band of the day, took their instruments out. But once they did, LOOK OUT! What a powerful, professional and energetic set of music from these local superstars! A funny moment in the show for us was when they broke out a cover of “Down by the Bay,” a song that was also on our set list, as it’s on our debut album. Their song “Rough & Tumble,” which featured lead singer Dana Harrison with a saucepan on her head like a helmet, delivered both visually and in its rowdy rock sound. The band’s vocal harmonies throughout the set were first-rate. I was proud to help them close out the set with a cover of The Beatles’ “All Together Now,” along with Ross and Amelia from the Jungle Gym Jam.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam get the crowd jumping in the rain at Turtle Back Zoo's Party for the Planet - Earth Day 2017

Turtle back Zoo 2017. Photo by Erin Ackerman

For our own set headlining the event, I was immensely proud of my band, the Jungle Gym Jam.  “Awesome Amy” brought the songs we created to life, kicking off our set by animating our “Sally the Sea Lion” puppet who told the crowd how they’re all part of “The People Exhibit at the Zoo” – the catchy music and humor in the song, paired with the visual, really helped draw in a crowd that was surprisingly large given the amount of rainfall everyone endured up to that point. Sally the Sea Lion stayed with us for an interactive rendition of “Five Sea Lions.”

Jason & Ross from the Jungle Gym Jam with Molly from Music with Molly at Turtle Back Zoo

Turtle Back Zoo 2017

“Rockin’ Ross” always impresses me at our gigs with his quiet, positive vibe and willingness to gently suggest ways to make things run smoother and easier. Given all the adversity thrown in our path last Saturday, Ross came up big! Teaming up with Dave to hold up the canopy was huge. Ross even coached me through backing the minivan up a long, narrow footpath, giving me new ways of using the sideview mirror that I hadn’t considered. Ross has a ton of little life-hacks up his sleeve! And of course, his rock-steady drumming gives us an arena-worthy sound even in my basement!

“Cowgirl Casey” was soldiering through a process where she’s receiving dozens of injections on each knee – an injury she sustained escaping the World Trade on 9/11/01 – she popped a stitch on a knee during the load-in for the performance. Her vocal harmonies lift the band’s sound greatly and her keyboard and acoustic guitar playing add a texture and professionalism that I’m proud to share with a large audience.

Jason from the Jungle Gym Jam playing a solo alongside Amelia Chan

Turtle Back Zoo 2017. Photo by Nicole Gray

Also impressive in our band performance was 14-year-old wiz kid “Astounding Amelia” on bass. My path to discovering Amelia’s talent and ability to help us entertain families was one of great coincidence. Our regular bassist, “Charming Chip,” had told me last fall that he’d be traveling to perform in Bahrain for several months. Right around that time, I took my daughter to see Amelia play in the School of Rock’s monthly concert in our hometown of Montclair. Amelia excelled at guitar, bass and lead vocals, as she tackled such complex songs as Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” (Her family holds a deep love for the Beatles.) When I saw Amelia’s School of Rock performance, I was convinced that she could be a great addition to our band in Chip’s absence and help showcase how music is truly multigenerational. Amelia has been impressive in each of her performances with us – at the Stone Pony last fall, Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia over the winter and of course, last weekend.

Over the winter, all our gigs had been acoustic – there hadn’t been an electric full-band lineup since last November. And our schedules would only provide for one rehearsal. And we had two new songs to perform for this special Earth Day occasion: “Pandagarten” and “Happy Earth Day.” A joyous and effective rehearsal reminded me why this band is so great – it gave me great confidence that we’d be ready musically for Saturday’s show – the actual performance did not disappoint! I was so thrilled to lead this band in front of this audience.

I’m profoundly grateful and impressed by all involved. I’ll carry fond memories of how it all played out and what everyone did to power us through it. Thanks also to Caitlin Sharp, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and the team at the Turtle Back Zoo for their trust and teamwork in making this event happen. Also thanks to Gwen and Dale at Montclair Local for sharing our story leading up to this unique event. Looking forward to next year!

Musically yours!

– Jason

P.S.: Here’s a gallery with more pics from the event for your enjoyment!

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.

Congratulations Raffi and Here’s My Version of Baby Beluga!

Children’s music legend Raffi has a new album out this summer – “Love Bug.” This is his first album of all new children’s music in 12 years. I’ve been following his social sharing over the last year since entering his profession and have seen him advocate passionately for his vision of childhood development via research and books. He’s best known for gently fostering healthy, happy childhoods in song and he’s back to those roots.

To celebrate, I’ve created my own version of “Baby Beluga” on YouTube. It’s a favorite of my nieces and a song that used to be requested of me long before I went kindie, when I would visit my wife’s and mom’s classrooms (both teachers!)

Congratulations Raffi on your return to making those cozy albums that help kids feel so safe and warm with their families!

Baby Beluga Jungle Gym Jam version - Congrats Raffi on New Album

Tales from KindieComm Part 2 – The Music

In the previous post I wrote about the larger event and the mingling of kindie artists.

Today’s post about the musical performances is a natural extension of that, because of the way the musicians continued to mingle onstage, forming some first-time-ever collaborations that did great justice to the music. There also some mind-blowing cross-generational music making as well.

Saturday night’s show was set up as an industry showcase, mostly the playing of kindie music for fellow musicians, radio hosts, bloggers, TV programmers and booking agents. A handful of kids happened to be in the audience, including Holly (age 3) and Clair, Lena (“Songs by Lena”) and Brian Smith’s 1-year-old daughter. Their impromptu playdate to the beat of the music was adorable to witness.

We caught the first three acts of Saturday night’s showcase before it was time to get our little peanut into bed. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer filled the air sweet harmonies and heartwarming messages until it was time to rock. Flashing a glittery Fender Telecaster they launched into a rollicking rockabilly song about air guitar antics that opened up and used plenty of space for some rippin’, twangin’ guitar solos by Marcy while a roomful of actual guitarists played along on the air version of their instruments. Joanie Leeds’ husband and drummer Dan Barman joined an impromptu band behind the duo that made it sound like they’ve all been playing together for years.

This mingling of kindie artists in new pickup bands continued on into Jazzy Ash’s set where she and her pickup band which included Washington D.C.’s Uncle Devin on drums made a tasty musical gumbo with the best available ingredients of the moment, playing “Baby Salmon” and encouraging the crowd to swim upstream, the show-stopper “Throw Me Somethin’ Mista,” a song strong enough that even without the signature rapping and storytelling of Mista Cookie Jar as on the recorded version, takes on a life of its own. Having beads thrown from the stage throughout the song certainly helped transport us to Buorbon Street from where we were. Holly was thrilled to catch an easy necklace directed right to her and to give her mommy a turn wearing it! I sure felt like a big kid jumping for beads, almost catching one and accidentally deflecting it to Jennifer Gasoi who already has a certain shiny gold decoration or two to her name (You’re welcome, Jennifer!)

2014-06-28 21.03.29All the fun and revelry of the previous two acts set the stage nicely for the acoustic stylings of Nick Bayard who had a stunning surprise up his sleeve. I had been intrigued during the breakouts and networking sessions by an 11-year-old boy who appeared perhaps more poised and businesslike than any of the adults in the room. It turns out this youngster is Nick’s stepson Ukweli, a strikingly skilled singer and guitarist in his own right. As they sang their folksy “Pirates on a Train” with tight harmonies and precise guitar rhythms, my jaw literally dropped, like it does when I’m watching Eddie Van Halen crank out a great solo, like when Bruce Springsteen hangs upside down from a mic stand at age 53. That moment between Nick and Ukweli ranks in my very top live musical moments I’ve witnessed, and probably will for life. The sound of their harmonies still rings in my ears days later as I write this. The family connection; the cross-generational and cross-racial connections, united in song. Then came the fun song about the pancakes, a pure innocent fun moment, a release after an absolutely striking moment before.

There were so many wonderful acts to follow whose records we love at home, but who were on past Holly’s already-delayed bedtime, so we will subsist on YouTube videos of those performances as they continue to surface. I heard great things about Joanie Leeds, Recess Monkey, Play Date, Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly, Diggity Dudes, Alex & the Kaleidoscope Band, Alphabet Rockers, Walter Martin and Zee Avi. If you saw them play, please comment on their performances below!

The next day, the music was intended for kids & families and open to the public. This was the WXPN Kids Corner Music Festival in the same venue, the World Café Live in Philadelphia. Trout Fishing in America, an acoustic duo with multi-generational appeal (they perform as a kids act and as an all-ages act under the same name and with overlapping repertoire). Their musical might showed up as they filled the big room with pulsating sounds of bass and semi-acoustic guitar alone; the rhythms were in overdrive without drums. The songs included some daring tongue twisters and fun mashups of nursery rhymes and Led Zeppelin tunes. They flexed some instrumental muscle on a rollicking “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly, segueing into “Tequilla” by The Champs.

When their set was over, they took on a different role, as Justin Roberts’ supporting band, offering rich textures to Justin’s more down-home acoustic-based numbers. The arrangements were variations on the arrangements on Justin’s recorded albums with the Trout Fishing boys improvising their own fills and licks that created new moments in familiar songs. Justin’s understated but pitch-perfect showmanship comes through mostly in the audience participation moves he teaches the big and little listeners before beginning each song and the overjoyed participation he gets with every chorus. It’s like a little pebble making big ripples. Justin appeared to be having more and more fun with the show as it went on, saving a little “rock star” pose for the closing chords of “Willy was a Whale,” an in-band request from Ezra of Trout Fishing in America.

Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band at KindieCommThen came the acoustic version Luck Diaz and the Family Jam Band, an act with ways of presenting itself unlike any other. Lucky is clearly the musical Maestro of the group, singing lead, playing sophisticated guitar chords and rhythms and keeping the beat on the bass drum (think Mumford & Son).  But he’s not the group’s frontperson exactly. That role goes to his wife, Alisha (Lishy) Gaddis, who is center stage as the band’s MC and 2nd singer. This works well for this band because she’s not tethered to an instrument and can call upon her acting and dancing skills to lead the kids through fun activities with her grand gestures.

There is plenty of fun banter and interplay between the two, with multi-instrumentalist Michael Farkas adding those all-important fun noises between vocal phrases and just below the surface of the melody. Some fun improvisations were added to the kindie radio staple “Thingamajig.”

The elegant Jennifer Gasoi (winner of this year’s Grammy and Saturday night’s Mardi Gras beads) came along next as the leader of a trio with standup bass and electronic piano. Her lighthearted manner puts kids at ease. She created two standout interactive moments with the kids, one where she chose a young volunteer to join her onstage and bring large wooden figures of butterflies and ladybugs to life. The other during “I’m a Bubble” happened when she danced into the audience area with a light-up handheld bubble maker during an instrumental break of the song, delighting the children around her.

We had to get on the road for the sake of our partied-out daughter after Jennifer, which leaves us an excellent excuse to cross the river and catch Dan Zanes in New York when we can (or Dan, if you’re reading this, persuade you to put on a northern New Jersey show!!!!) Fellow KindieCommers, if you want to add your observations of Dan’s set (or any of the musical portions of the event), I’d love to hear it.

Time for Disney to Put the Vault in the Vault?

vaultIf you have a young daughter like I do, you may have noticed that the Disney Princesses merchandising is everywhere. My 3-year-old now knows the names of many of the princesses through the dresses, puzzles, dolls, board games and other branding she’s been exposed to. Yet she’s seen very few of the movies Disney had made about these princesses because Disney is clinging to its practice of keeping its classic movies in the “vault” for years on end, re-releasing them for limited periods of time and then making them unavailable again.

I understand the original reasoning for this practice: Creating scarcity of your product can create a buying frenzy when it is finally released.  This appears to have worked well for a famous company like Disney, with famous movies like “Snow White.” Parents have seen it at some point in their own childhoods, so when the vault is finally opened to release “Snow White” for a short period of time, parents will snap up their copies for their kids.

But this strategy completely ignores the success Disney’s been having with the Disney Princesses merchandising. Snow White’s image is emblazoned upon countless products that millions of children are playing with right now, yet their families don’t have a way to pay Disney to obtain the movie. Now, they could get a used copy of a videotape or DVD (legal), or worse, a pirated copy (not so legal), but there’s no way to officially get the movie. Now that iTunes and Netflix are legitimate channels of digital distribution, this could only be a winning proposition for Disney to unchain its way of doing business from the past.

What if Walt Disney himself had been unwilling to break away from the old ways of animating and never took the leap into celluloid animation? What if Disney never teamed up with Steve Jobs to create those dazzling Pixar movies? Disney as a family and as a company are known for innovating new and exciting means of family entertainment. Keeping its most beloved works in a vault while marketing the characters contained in those films serves only an old tradition, not families and apparently not Disney’s potential for deeper reach into the living rooms of the world.

My perspective comes from being a dad and a co-owner of an independent mom-and-pop children’s entertainment operation, and I can’t imagine keeping a song unavailable for years (other than pirating) while merchandise related to that song is selling like hotcakes. But hey, maybe that’s just me… What do you think, fellow parents? Kids? Please feel free to join in the discussion in the comments below.