Category Archives: Pop culture

Remember “We Are the World?” Here are All the Singers on that Collaboration

We Are the World cover artworkOur daughter recently became a major fan of Michael Jackson, thanks to a Montclair Film Festival screening of The Wiz over the summer. So, Amy and I played her the video of “We Are the World.” The whole story of the charitable collaboration really resonated with Amy and me on multiple levels, partly because we’ve gotten involved in many charitable projects with the kindie music community and have a more profound understanding of how “We Are the World” changed the scale of what musicians could do for charity when they work together. In total, USA for Africa raised over $63 million, sending 90% of it to Africa to aid with the deadly famine they were suffering through, thanks to the single they recorded in 1985.

I decided it would be fun to put together a playlist of every singer who appeared on that famous track – in the order of their solos, and then followed by the artists who were in the chorus but didn’t have a solo (Smokey Robinson or Pointer Sisters, anyone??)

In retrospect, I had forgotten just how big Bruce Springsteen’s presence was on that track, appearing prominently at 2 different points in the production.

Please comment below on what the “We Are the World” project means to you.

A Bruce Springsteen Concert through the Eyes of a Kindie Band

The Didner Family/Jungle Gym Jam Experiences Its Main Influence Live

by Jason Didner, leader of the Jungle Gym Jam, a Jersey rock band for kids and their grown-ups

CLEVELAND - NOVEMBER 02: Singer Bruce Springsteen plays before Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) takes the stage during a campaign rally at the Cleveland Mall November 2, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio. Obama continues to campaign against Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as Election Day draws near. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images. Licensed via iStockPhoto

Amy and I have seen Bruce Springsteen concerts together a few times now in our home state of New Jersey, which we share with The Boss. But the youngest member of our family, the inspiration for the very foundation of the Jungle Gym Jam, our daughter Holly had never been to an arena show until Tuesday, when she caught Bruce in the act. Only right, I figure, since she’s already performed at The Stone Pony! My mom had picked up these tickets for my birthday, since I had mentioned that I’m no longer really interested in getting “stuff”; I’d rather get “experiences” as gifts.

And what a gift this was! It was Bruce’s first gig back in New Jersey on this leg of his latest “The River” commemorative tour. He had just taken Europe by storm and returned to the audience who could most easily identify with his stories of his Monmouth County youth. Given that we had a 5-year-old child with us, and that we were booked to perform the next morning (at a preschool on Bruce’s beloved Jersey Shore) which would require us to leave the house by 8 AM, we were pretty certain we wouldn’t stay the whole show, but that we’d get in as much Bruce Juice as we could before heading home to prepare for the next day. I ended up loading the minivan with our instruments after helping Holly to bed.

Jason, Amy and Holly from the Jungle Gym Jam at the corner of 10th Avenue and E Street in Belmar in front of a statue of Bruce Springsteen's signature guitar - a Fender Telecaster

My family/band at 10th Ave. and E Street in Belmar, NJ

Holly’s Take

Holly seemed positively awestruck for the first 15 minutes of the show as Bruce & band pulled off a sweeping rendition of his jazzy, orchestral “New York City Serenade” and the defiant “Wrecking Ball.” As she got accustomed to the enormity of the scene, she began belting out the audience participation – raising her fist for the words “Badlands,” answering “All Night” in Spirit in the Night, and marveling at the sax playing of Jake Clemons, who lovingly plays his late uncle Clarence’s parts perfectly, plus adds his own killer improvs when given the ball. When the crowd was on its feet, I held our child in my arms for as long as I could, then asked her to stand on her seat while I kept her steady.

The next evening, Holly was on the playground of her soon-to-be Kindergarten, spontaneously singing “Hungry Heart.” She told her friends, “I have Bruce in my head.” Mission Accomplished!

Bruce was in amazing voice and his E Street Band was right on point with every song, every texture, every tempo. Together, they served the mood and intensity from light-hearted to deadly serious as the moment called for it. The addition of a string section for “New York City Serenade” and then later on “Jack of All Trades” really stirred the emotions.

Making Moments

I am a student of the writings of Tom Jackson, live music producer. He helps live performers get a vision for their shows and turn them into memorable experiences made up of moments – not just a bunch of songs to be played. Tom has mentioned Bruce as one of the great visionaries of live musical performances; a frame of reference I have agreed with for a long time. But this would be my first Bruce song since reading Tom’s “Live Music Method” book. So, what did Bruce do onstage to create those special moments?

He made each song “look different.” – Tom Jackson mentions in his writings and his interviews that even if your songs sound radically different from one another, your live audience will stop noticing if the songs all “look the same.” Bruce handily avoids that trap. The first song had a string section at stage left. Then the string players left the stage. He featured different musicians, all with wireless gear, who were each free to come join him when they had their featured moments. He often put down his guitar and worked all sides of the enormous stage with a handheld wireless microphone, sometimes high-fiving the lucky fans in the front row.

Bruce also mixed things up by bringing an audience member up on stage to sing the song that the fan, a young man, requested – Bruce’s popular Jersey Shore rock rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” By the way, hearing that in the heat of the summer made me all the more glad I used that song’s influence in shaping my own tune “Summertime Santa!

In pulling out the “moments” in a song it often means changing the arrangement from the album, since things that are very noticeable when you’re listening to your favorite record through headphones would easily escape the notice of a concertgoer who has so much happening in the live environment. Bruce demonstrated a great knowledge of this when he sang “Wrecking Ball” – an homage to Met Life Stadium’s predecessor, Giants Stadium, before it was demolished. So whenever he made a Jersey, Meadowlands, or Giants reference he had to accept (and appeared to thoroughly enjoy!) the audience roaring its approval of those local shout-outs. So he arranged with the whole band to wait for those roars to die down (don’t step on your applause!) before continuing with the lyrics. That’s how you stretch out a moment in your song.

Tom Jackson’s book gets quite a bit into the difference between a band “dating its audience” – meaning that a new band often has to play in front of people who haven’t seen them before — vs. a band “married to its audience.” Bruce and the E Street Band in front of its hometown audience is a long and happy marriage – so I certainly had to adjust my observations accordingly. Tom’s book is mostly for bands who are “dating” their audience.

Putting Inspiration into Practice

The very next morning we had a concert of our own – at the Shore Academy Preschool in Point Pleasant Beach. We’d drive there on shortened sleep and heads full of great concert memories. And for me, great motivation to keep pushing ahead with what Tom Jackson had taught me and what I had seen Bruce & band execute with such mastery the night before. When we sang our signature song of the summer, “Day at the Beach” and we had a line that “We’re headed for a Jersey Shore town,” I really punched out “JERSEY SHORE TOWN” in a shout the Boss would approve of! I made sure to get out from behind the mic stand when I could, and give the show all my energy. Amy and Holly performed with an equally inspired gusto that could only come from being in the presence of one of the greats!

Your thoughts?

Were you at the Bruce concert? Ever seen one before? Ever take the kids? How did seeing one of your heroes in action influence what you do? I’d love to read your comments below!

Want to catch our live show and see how we’re influenced by Bruce? Check out our Tour page!

How Star Wars has Marked my Coming of Age…at Every Age

Jason and Holly Didner from Jungle Gym Jam engage in a lightsaber duel on Star Wars Reads Day in October 2013.With the release of every Star Wars movie, there was a special way that each film spoke to me at those points in my development.

I was six years old the first time I was transported to that galaxy far, far away, to a movie that was then just known as Star Wars, but is now called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. That movie fueled my sense of pretend play with my brother Matt. We would fly our toy X-wing fighters on all kinds of missions until one-by-one, their wings would break off.  We’d improvise all kinds of new scenes between our action figures. I distinctly remember wrapping myself with a blanket and brandishing a Wiffle bat as Obi-Wan and then collapsing under that cloak after making the ultimate sacrifice for the Rebellion.

At age 9, I’d take in “The Empire Strikes Back” for the first time. As a student who struggled to focus attention on the task at hand but had a vague understanding of my natural talents, I experienced my share of achievements and made my share of excuses for the setbacks. I connected with Luke’s struggles and failures in front of his wise mentor Yoda.

Jason Didner instructing Holly on battling a remote with her lightsaber at Star Wars Reads Day at Montclair Public Library October 2013While the question hung in the air over the next three years over whether Darth Vader’s shocking revelation was truthful or a lie, our family moved from East Brunswick to Morristown. I was approaching the age of my Bar Mitzvah. What I believe I took away from Return of the Jedi, the completion of the original trilogy, was Luke’s repeated refusal to fight his father to the death and his assertion of his identity as a Jedi, even at the risk of his life. Darth Vader’s final act of compassion and sacrifice spoke to me as well. As an essentially non-violent kid, I took this conclusion as an affirmation that non-violence can be tremendous strength, not weakness or cowardice. Today, my daughter gets a kick out of dueling with me using pool-noodle lilghtsabers with duct-tape hilts as I admonish “You are unwise to lower your DEFENSES,” at which point I strike from above and she dutifully parries my attack.

My teens and college years would include an occasional re-watching of these classics in no particular order, as they came on HBO or if a roommate was watching a VHS tape, it would spontaneously become movie night. I felt those were occasions to bond with new friends over a shared youth experience.

I was a man of 29 when the prequels, namely Episode I: The Phantom Menace’s hype caught me in its tractor beam. Much was written about this upcoming film and I devoured it as quickly as I could, fascinated with imagining the state that galaxy in the decades before that famous civil war broke out. It was a particular thrill to see a vibrant, young Obi-wan as a Jedi-in-training exhibiting dazzling lightsaber skills against countless droids. I was also intrigued with the deceptive machinations that a certain politician from Naboo was devising as he appeared to be living a double life. As a politically active young adult, I believe I appreciated the political maneuvering in the film that others found frustrating or un-Star Wars-like. I believe I simply accepted this controversial film as a marker of where the beloved stories from my childhood all began.  Little did I know how my life would soon change in a profound way. Less than a month after Episode 1 came out, I’d meet Amy. We were married by the time the next prequel was released.

I remember our wedding day so clearly-a joyous celebration in front of our extended family and friends – a moment to publicly share our feelings with everyone who we felt close to – and the stark contrast to the secret wedding of Anakin and Padme in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. For me,  Anakin’s unrequited longing that suddenly became a mutual passion after some shared traumatic moments struck me as an image of doomed romances I’ve seen (and experienced) in real life. Seeing the city bar scene lay the early groundwork for Obi-Wan’s quick reactions in the cantina to protect Luke later in life was a satisfying callback.

Revenge of the Sith, the movie meant to connect the prequel trilogy to the events of our childhood memories from A New Hope, give us a concrete depiction of the moment we always imagined – the duel between the newly converted Darth Vader and his former master Obi-Wan. It was a solemn moment of reckoning. It’s the image that remains on my mind when I contemplate whether I would let my heart to go to the darkest place in the universe to protect my loved ones.  And would that change me into someone my loved ones could no longer accept. For the record, it makes no sense to me that Padme would die of sorrow at a young age without suicide or a disease that’s worsened by stress and grief (like the way cancer quickly consumed the life of Dayna Reeve after Christopher died). Within the workings of that galaxy far, far away, I’m more likely to believe that newly-crowned Emperor Palpatine sucked the life force out of Padme, much like Vader was able to remotely choke Imperial officers who failed to carry out his orders. The Emperor needed Padme, a senator who stood for peace and democracy, out of the way for his new dictatorship to go full steam ahead. He also needed to squash entirely the soft side of his newly-minted apprentice Darth Vader. What better way to do that than to bring an end to the very same loved one Anakin gave himself to the dark side to protect?

My overall experience of the prequel trilogy through my late 20s/early 30s was that it was different than the back stories that were in my head, but I accepted them as the back stories that creator George Lucas had been carrying in his imagination long before any of us would ever know what a landspeeder was. I learned through the experience of these prequels that other people have different stories to tell than I do.  During the period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I created an album of heartfelt singer-songwriter meets rock-n-roll fare and I gave lots of live performances in support of that album. I had my own stories to tell and I felt motivated and compelled to tell them. I still do. Star Wars would remind me of the power of storytelling.

As I write this, I’m less than 24 hours away from witnessing The Force Awakens, a movie I’ve been aware of since the project was first announced about three years ago. My inner geek is going a bit berserk here, so bear with me. I’m eager for the new stories and the way they’ll be told – and the chance to catch up with the primary characters of those stories that informed my own childhood so much – played by the original actors. The most important new development in my life since the last prequel is that I’m a dad now and sharing this saga with a child who is now the same age as my brother was when we first witnessed the original film as a family. I’m interested in what this new generation of the saga will say to me as a parent and how its tale of a young woman coming into her power will serve my daughter as this trilogy unfolds over the next six years.