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.
So 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!
At 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.
Some 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.
I’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.