Mark Braun’s nearly 2,000-mile bicycle ride along the Mississippi River almost didn’t happen. Ann Arborites have long known Mr. B for his boogie-woogie, blues, and jazz piano concerts, including, for the past thirty-five years, playing on the street during the art fair. But every summer since 2009, Braun also has pedaled his Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet piano to concerts throughout Michigan, helped by friends who attach pusher bikes to the back of his custom-built piano hauler. This year, he planned to take the Joybox Express down the Great River Road.
Then, last October, Braun ran into a deer on his motorcycle. He suffered six broken ribs, a partially punctured lung, and a damaged knee. He spent nearly a week in the hospital, couldn’t lift so much as a gallon of milk for weeks, and wasn’t able to walk up stairs or sleep in a bed for over three months. But he recovered with the help of physical therapist and trainer Skip Bunton, and on September 1 he and four friends set out from the headwaters of the Mississippi in Lake Itasca, Minnesota. They were bound for New Orleans via dozens of concerts in schools and jazz clubs, several parades, and countless impromptu busking mini-shows at stops along the road.
Braun’s friends handled the logistics for his Michigan rides, but for this year’s far more ambitious trek he knew he’d need more support. Enter Artrain, the local nonprofit that for more than forty years has brought art and cultural programs to communities throughout Michigan and the U.S. Artrain rounded up a GMC Yukon and a trailer to house the piano bike when it’s not being ridden, helped book concerts, and sent program director Shoshana Hurand to travel with the team, providing logistical support; arranging concerts, accommodations, and media contacts; and occasionally even taking a turn on one of the pusher bikes.
Local jazz drummer Sam Genson, twenty-eight, accompanies Braun on drums or washboard at every show and also doubles as bike mechanic and navigator–checking elevation maps on his smartphone so the Joybox can avoid as many hills as possible and watching the weather for favorable tailwinds. Marty Stano, also twenty-eight and a graduate of the U-M’s film program, is documenting the tour and sharing the pedaling. The youngest member of the team, Jules Cunningham, eighteen and just out of high school, is the son of a longtime friend of Braun and an Artrain intern. Nicknamed “the Animal” by Braun, both for his pedaling strength and for his prodigious appetite, Jules is also a budding guitar player who occasionally joins the musicians on stage.
In October, I caught up with them in Nauvoo, Illinois. It was a ten-hour drive from Ann Arbor, counting the inevitable traffic jam outside Chicago and getting lost when my GPS became confused in the enormous cornfields of western Illinois. That’s nothing–by then, the Joybox Express had already been pedaling for thirty-seven days and had covered 760 miles. They’ve gone as many as sixty miles in one day and, over difficult terrain, as few as fifteen (there are also scheduled rest days, and days when there are too many activities to allow riding). The weather had been kind, with moderate temperatures and no rain, unlike the ninety-degree heat and high humidity of some of Mr. B’s Michigan rides. They’d been interviewed by local newspapers and radio stations, and, Braun jokes, a video made by an NBC station in Minneapolis “went viral with a small v.”
The day I spent with them was a rest day, no pedaling. We spent part of the morning doing maintenance, jacking up the rig, lubing chains, tightening bolts, and making sure the wheels were spinning freely. (Earlier in the trip, undiscovered for several days because it happened so gradually, the bike’s disc brakes partially seized up, adding to the pedalers’ already arduous task.)
In the afternoon we trucked the piano bike to the Nauvoo-Colusa Elementary School. After unloading it from the trailer, we rode it up to a blacktop playground where about 200 students and teachers had gathered. Mr. B told them about the piano bike, the trip, and boogie-woogie piano. The term elicited some giggling–which stopped as soon as he began playing. The whole rig shook and bounced with his energy, and long applause followed.
Then he introduced me and the unfamiliar percussion instrument I play, the bones, and we swung into “Cow Cow Blues,” with Mr. B, Genson, and me all improvising on the breaks. He followed with his own composition, “Little Brother,” a slow blues dedicated to the memory of Little Brother Montgomery, one of his mentors, then took questions about the bike and the music.
We closed with “St. Louis Blues.” Much to their delight, he invited the kids to boogie on the fast sections and to freeze in place on the slow sections. Afterward, we sang for our supper, playing on the sidewalk in front of the Nauvoo Hotel.
Mr. B, fifty-seven, has been dreaming of this trip for more than half his life. The Joybox Express raises funds to benefit organizations that provide programs for children, especially in the arts and athletics. But Braun also hopes to pay homage to and educate people about the giants of the first generation of blues and jazz piano players, some of who mentored him and passed along their craft.
“So many people have thought this couldn’t be done,” he says of the Mississippi ride. “It’s not like we’re putting a man on the moon, but still it’s a big vision, complicated, requires a lot of people to help. And so many people have helped. And now it has happened.
“But you can’t expect or hope that the outcome for me, or anyone else on the team, will be so outsized too; that there’ll be an epiphany, that something will occur that’s life-changing. It’s in the day-to-day moments, while you’re engaged in doing what you’re doing, just riding this incredible, unique vessel. And some of the smallest moments have been the most memorable.
“After we played in a club in Burlington, Iowa, there was an article about us in the local paper. The next day we’re going down this rural farm road, and we see in the distance someone standing by the side of the road. Turns out to be an elderly woman, holding her arm out with a twenty-dollar bill in her hand. She’d read about us, what we’re trying to advocate for, and she said, ‘I think what you’re doing is fantastic, and I want to help.’ There have been hundreds of moments like that.”
I drove home the next day. Only nine hours this time–my GPS was on familiar ground. God and their bodies willing, the Joybox Express will pedal into New Orleans on November 14.