Pianist is keyed up about mixing art and athletics

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It would be challenging enough to travel by bike if you were, say, a guitarist, a saxophonist or even a tuba player.

The man who goes by Mr. B hasn't put aside his dreams of touring on two wheels, despite being ... a pianist. In fact, he's made it the visual signature, or gimmick, of Joybox Express.

Mark Braun, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based blues/jazz player, has logged 800 miles across his state hauling his 350-pound piano on a special bike pedaled by three riders. On Friday, he comes to the Roots Cellar via Calliope: The Pittsburgh Folk Music Society, joined by singer Billy Price, who has a long association with Mr. Braun's bassist, Pittsburgh-based pediatrician Carl Hildebrandt.

Joybox Express

Where: Roots Cellar, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Shadyside.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Tickets: $23, $12 (student rush); www.calliopehouse.org or 412-361-1915.

"I've always been involved in many facets of athletics and music," the pianist says, "and a lot of people find those two things to be mutually exclusive, and that always bothered me, because I love them both. I'm middle-aged, I'm 55, but in my 20s, I dreamed of putting a piano on a bike and did nothing about it for, like, 30 years. Turning 50, you start to smell the finish line and start to think about the scope of what you can do, especially physically, and the dream was reawakened. The second aspect is, I thought I wasn't being a very good community member, other than offering my music for people."

He decided to use Joybox Express as a vehicle to raise awareness and funds to help organizations that provide children with access to arts and athletic programs. Next year, the Express, fearing that a cross-country trip would be too daunting, plans to tour the length of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to New Orleans, reaching out to local communities along the way.

What are the hazards and difficulties of hauling a piano on a bike?

"One time we had it going 38 mph going downhill," he says excitedly, then adds, "That's too fast.

"It's tempting," he continues, "because whenever you get a big downhill, you just want to take it for all it's worth, because it's so hard going uphill. But we're going to try to watch that. We're so visible. We're about 4 feet wide, about 16 feet long, and we cover ourselves and the whole rig with all sorts of lights and neon fabric. We don't ride with a support vehicle that goes 7 mph and takes up the whole lane, because you back up so much traffic, then you get people [mad] at you. If we're just careful, people can wait a little minute and edge around us like any cyclist."

Musically, Mr. B, who will leave the bike at home for this one-off Pittsburgh show, credits his style of barrelhouse boogie-woogie to guidance from such old-timers as Little Brother Montgomery, Boogie Woogie Red and Blind John Davis.

"We play a nice soulful mix of traditional blues and jazz, and I don't like to draw any lines or distinctions between the two. It's all part of our country's whole narrative. It's a stew, and I write a lot of original music. It's just an up-to-date version of the blues piano tradition. I was really fortunate to know a lot of the old-timers extremely well. My life has been a reflection of their experience and hopefully a broadening of it. I love to share with audiences those stories and the lives of the originators."

His partnership with Dr. Hildebrandt dates back to their days in Ann Arbor, when they roomed together while the bassist attended medical school. Dr. Hildebrandt moved to Pittsburgh and also became a part of Mr. Price's band.

Mr. Price and Mr. B will meet for the first time the day of the concert.

"He's been very gracious and wants to be a part of it," the pianist says. "The way we're going to run the set is, I'm going to play a solo set and talk briefly about the project. And then we'll bring Billy out to play the blues and rhythm 'n' blues."


Scott mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576.


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