MUSCATINE, Iowa — Visitors to the Muscatine Art Center on Sunday, Sept. 28 are in for a rare treat when blues and boogie-woogie piano player Mark Braun, "Mr. B," rolls into town on his Joybox Express for a free show.
The Joybox Express is a piano on a custom-built platform, attached to three bicycles, powered by Mr. B and a team of riders, traveling down the entire length of the Mississippi to promote arts and physical activity for children. The tour is titled, "Mr. B's Joybox Express Mississippi River Road Ride."
"We're celebrating the joys of both music and movement …," Braun said in a recent interview on the KAXE radio show, "On the River," in Bemidji, Minnesota. "We're trying to reach out to communities along the way and encourage them to consider the needs of their kids in those two regards, to celebrate those two disciplines, and to just encourage people to make themselves all they can be."
Muscatine Art Center director Melanie Alexander says the Art Center and Laura Musser Museum are well-suited to host this event.
"Laura Musser, the lady of the house, had a great interest in music and held concerts in the music room ... Laura would become acquainted with musicians who performed in Chicago and would invite them to perform in her home in Muscatine. ... Over the years, Muscatine has been a stop to many travelers who have undertaken the same journey, but this particular arrangement is very imaginative."
The over-sized tricycle-looking contraption is carrying a 387-pound Baldwin Acrosonic Console piano on the 2,300-mile trip that began Sept. 1 at the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and will end in mid-November at its mouth in New Orleans, Louisiana, following the migration of blues music in reverse. Braun is traveling with a small team of cyclists, including drummer and bike mechanic Sam Genson, as well as members of the production team from Artrain Inc., an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based nonprofit that is committed to providing excellent arts and cultural programs to students and communities no matter their location or economic status.
Shoshana Hurand, of Ann Arbor, is the tour manager, traveling with the cyclists and arranging details and stops along the way. "When they pull the cover off [the piano] and start playing," she says, "heads turn and people start smiling and going, 'what is that?' and it never fails that the kids are absolutely the first ones to start dancing."
Hurand also mentions the kindness of people they've met so far. "We've been overwhelmed by the instant generosity of people who see us playing. People will meet us and within a few minutes, offer to put us up at their houses, let us come over for dinner, do a concert at their house. Just the overwhelming generosity and desire to support the project any way they can has been really inspiring."
Mr. B and the Joybox Express will perform on the lawn of the Muscatine Art Center at 3 p.m. on Sept. 28, following a puppet show and street parade (for a full list of event, see the "Details" item elsewhere with this story).
The puppet show, called "Brain Minders," presented by the Muscatine chapter of Pilot Club International, will teach children about wearing a helmet, seat belt, and other aspects of brain safety. Families and children can then prepare for the Boogie Woogie Parade by decorating their bikes, scooters, or strollers, and by making hats and noise makers. The parade will be led by the Muscatine Art Center's giant puppet, and "Babymouse," a popular children's book character, will be joining the parade compliments of the Musser Public Library. Everyone is encouraged to wear crazy costumes.
Though some of the events are geared toward families and children, Mr. B's performance will be for anyone who enjoys quality music, especially the blues and boogie-woogie piano, which is a rhythmic style featuring a percussive, fast-moving left hand that sets toes and fingers tapping. Mark Braun learned his craft from the first generation of blues and boogie piano players such as Little Brother Montgomery, Boogie Woogie Red, and Blind John Davis. Braun lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but has played all over the U.S. and around the world, often using his craft for educational purposes.
The historic bike trip and stops along the way are also being filmed for a documentary that will be directed by filmmaker Brett Leonard ("Take Me to the River"), narrated by actor Jeff Daniels, and produced by Khalid Hanifi, a singer/songwriter and producer from Ann Arbor.
"What people in Muscatine can expect to see is an entirely unique piano/bicycle being played by one of the finest blues and boogie-woogie piano players in the world!" Hanifi said.
It's an opportunity for a day of fun music and activity that may not come again soon. After all, according to Hurand, "It's not every day that a piano bike comes down the road!"