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Have Piano, Will Travel: Mr. B's Epic Bicycle Adventure

Joybox Express
Mr B's Joybox Express

Boogie-woogie and blues pianist Mark Braun (a.k.a. Mr. B) has fond memories of touring in the Pacific Northwest. KPLU has played his recordings for more than 20 years. I've followed Mr. B for some time, because there's not much I like better than his style of piano playing, the music that came up from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta.

What I didn't know about him until recently is that he's also a dedicated amateur athlete, an avid bicyclist and an advocate for getting kids active in the arts and athletics.

Mr. B's Joybox Express ("joybox": an old idiomatic expression for a piano, used by blues musicians in the Southhas combined music performance with bicycle trips across Michigan to raise funds for kids, riding a specially built contraption that actually carries the 387 pound piano.

The Joybox Express has worked with about 40 different charities to support arts and athletic programs in Michigan communities. Groups ride along with the Joybox Express to raise funds for their school's girls basketball team or their library's poetry club. Mr. B loves it when people discover there's room in their souls for both artistic endeavors and athletic activity.

On Sept. 1, the Joybox Express starts an incredible journey:  2,000 miles in 90 days, down the fabled "Blues Highway," the Mississippi River Road from Lake Itasca, Minnesota all the way to New Orleans. The group will make about 13 stops along the way to perform and help communities raise funds for youth arts and athletics programs.

Last week, I spoke to Mr. B about this grand undertaking. He said the basic idea actually started a long time ago.

"When I was in my mid-20s, I started to think that somebody should put a piano on a bicycle, so that I could do the two things that I loved so much. So I spent about 30 years doing absolutely nothing about it, except for taking a lot of pats on the back, usually very late at night over a few beers, for having such a clever and unique idea," he said.

The death of his father in 2009 gave Mr. B a sense of urgency to make this idea a reality. And he wanted to do something big with it, like a trip across America. He'd revise that ambition after getting the piano bike built and tested, but still, he knew he needed to do something, well, epic.

The piano bike itself is a thing of wonder. With the help of Mark Nobilette, a bicycle frame builder who helped create those bicycle taxis or "pedicabs" you see in New York and other large cities, the piano bike was designed and built. It's not a bike trailer; it's actually a tricycle — a 16-foot-long, 4-foot-wide tricycle; one bike in front, pulling, and two bikes in back, pushing.

The idea for the Mississippi River Road trip came to Mr. B in one of those flashes of inspiration that we all dream of, but rarely experience:

"One day, I literally folded myself up from bed, sat up straight, and it flew into my head.  I knew that the epic adventure that we needed to do was to follow the Mississippi River, kind of a reverse migration of the blues and jazz, and take the music back home," he said. 

There's much more to this story, of course: the amazing outpouring of support, the accident that almost sidetracked the whole thing, and the involvement of the cultural outreach organization, Artrain.

Just announced last week was a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary of the trip, titled Mr. B's Joybox Express-The Film, Narrated by Jeff Daniels.

Listen for Mr. B's music and for updates on the Joybox Express Mississippi River Ride on KPLU's Midday Jazz!

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.