Ann Arborites are used to seeing Mark Braun, aka Mr. B, play piano on the street. He’s been a fixture at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original, since 1980, playing blues, jazz, and boogie-woogie piano—first at the intersection of East and South University, and then, when the fair moved to its new location, under a tent on North U. This month, Mr. B will be celebrating his thirtieth year at the fair.
But first he’ll be taking his act on the road—on a bicycle.
In June, he took delivery on a custom-built, pedal-powered rig with twenty-one gears, two chains, shock absorbers, a rear differential, hydraulic disk brakes, and a flatbed big enough to hold a 352-pound piano.
The people-powered piano mover will make its public debut in Ann Arbor’s Fourth of July Parade. Then Braun will truck the rig and piano up to Flint, where he’ll play concerts June 6 and 7. From there he will pedal his way to Lansing via back roads for a concert June 10. After a brief stop at the Capitol, he’ll bike his piano back to Ann Arbor. Along the way, he’ll also be “busking”—playing informal shows and putting out a hat for donations, as he does at the Art Fairs.
Braun, fifty-two, has been toying with this idea for more than half his life. “When I was twenty-five, my dream was to go coast to coast, across the whole continent.” But
though he has a national and even international reputation as a piano player—he just returned from a two-week European tour—Braun also is a full-time carpenter with his own business, Mark Braun Woodworking, doing general and finish carpentry and custom cabinetmaking.
His dual careers haven’t left him time for the transcontinental trip. So last summer Braun planned a shorter journey across Michigan. He was forced to put aside that tour when his father became seriously ill. But this year he’s determined to make an abbreviated trip “as a kind of trial, to test my body and the bike.”
And to test something else. Though he’s scaled down the tour from his original dream, Braun’s ultimate goal has grown loftier. When he was twenty-five, he says, “I just wanted to jump on a bike with a piano and ride around, see who I met. And there’s still a part of me that just wants to get on that contraption and ride around and see what happens. My dream is to drive by some grandma’s porch and just stop and play her a tune.” But now he also hopes that this tour, and similar ones he may do in the future, will help raise awareness and money to support young people in the arts and athletics, two of his lifelong passions. Funds raised during his July jaunt will go to Wild Swan Theater’s Monique’s Kids Fund, which provides theater tickets for low-income families.
Braun’s titling the trip “Mr. B’s Joybox Express” (“joybox” being the nickname for pianos in the early twentieth century in the Deep South). He’s setting up a website, www.mrbsjoyboxexpress.com, where supporters can track his progress and make donations.
Jim Fleming, longtime area booking agent and manager to many folk and roots musicians, is advising Braun on the tour. “He’s setting a great example,” says Fleming, “that people can pursue their dreams.”
Mr. B will not be riding alone—literally or figuratively. Two years ago he described his plan to eight of his local pianist colleagues—William Bolcom, James Dapogny, Al Hill, Waleed Howrani, Glenn Persello-Seefeld, Rick Roe, Ellen Rowe, and Tad Weed. They all agreed to help him with the project. Together with Mr. B, they played two evening concerts at the Kerrytown Concert House, and the income from those shows, as well as from the sales of the resulting live recording, 9 Pianists—Our Town, Our Time, paid to build Braun’s rig. “There would not be a trip without my brother and sister piano players here in Ann Arbor,” he says.
The piano hauler was designed and built by bicycle maker Mark Nobilette, a former Ann Arborite who lives in Colorado. It is a variation on a design called the Main Street Pedicab, essentially a giant tricycle, or bicycle rickshaw, that is used to pull sightseers in cities throughout the world.
A former student of Braun, Lance Wagner, now in the jazz studies program at MSU, will ride his own bike alongside him, and Braun is hoping others, especially young people, will join him for parts of the trip—particularly the final leg when, after playing an afternoon concert at Aberdeen Bike & Fitness in Chelsea July 13, he plans to pedal back to Ann Arbor in time to play at the Ann Arbor Townie Party that night. (Ellen Rowe is planning to run beside him on that final leg.)
The piano that Mr. B will be pulling is a Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet. “It’s a real piano, full keyboard—the only nice little pianos that were ever made.” The piano will have a custom-made vinyl waterproof cover to protect it from the elements but “nothing for me,” Braun says. “I don’t want to get hit by lightning, but otherwise I don’t care.”
No one who has seen Mr. B play at the Art Fairs should doubt that he can pull off the 125–mile trip. His vigorous marathon performances have amply demonstrated his power and endurance. Playing up to eleven hours a day, sometimes in ninety-degree heat and high humidity, he’s only missed one out of the 116 Art Fair days in the last three decades.
“It’s sometimes more sport than art,” Braun says of his Art Fair shows. “They’re harder than a triathlon.” He should know—he’s done a handful of those, too.