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September 16, 1988 - Image 18

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-09-16
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B can boogie down with the best of them

Local blues pianist makes trip
from criminal law to ivories

By Brian Bonet
During the two years Mr. B.
(Mark Braun) was an undergraduate
at the University, he studied crimi-
nal justice and his idol was Perry
Mason. The drama of the courtroom
attracted the student from Flint and
law was a probable career path.
However, Braun had other inter-
ests. Among them was boogie-
woogie piano playing, a hobby he
picked up at the late age of 17.
"I started going to the Blind Pig
on Monday night to hear Boogie
Woogie Red," recalls Braun. "He
used to play at the old Blind Pig
which used to be in the basement.
It only seated 64 people - a real
first rate blues room. One of the
best in the country."
And soon the drama of the court-
room was replaced by the drama of
a tiny Ann Arbor blues room and
Perry Mason was replaced by the
likes of Sunnyland Slim.
"They had all the greatest guys
play there and that's were I saw all
the piano players - Roosevelt
Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, Boogie
Woogie Red, Blind John Davis -
all those guys. And that's how I
learned how to play. By listening to
Two years later, Braun was
knocking on the front doors of
these same musicians and asking to
sit in on their in-house gigs. He
wanted to learn from the piano
masters directly, an endeavor that
took him to the farthest reaches of
Chicago's southside.
"I was just going on obsession. I
was blind to the fact that I could
have gotten my throat slit or gotten
beat up. Luckily I never had much
trouble," says Braun who developed
close friendships with the artists he
"I was very, very close to Little
Brother Montgomery. He was one
of the really greatest of all the blues
pianists - not so well known but
on of the most highly regarded
artists in Chicago by all the blues
pianists. I knew all those guys and
I'd go sit in on their gigs, learn
from them, go to their house and
play with them."
Today he's playing with the per-
son he calls the greatest swing
drummer alive today - Detroit big
bandleader J.C. Heard. The two
have just released the album Part-
ners in Time, a collection of old-
time blues and boogie-woogie.
Among the guest artists appearing
on the album are Motor City greats
Marcus Belgrave (trumpet) and
George Benson (saxophone).
These same performers, as well

as others, joined Braun at the Ark
last Saturday night for two sold-out
performances. The late night show
was relaxed, resembling some of
the old in-house jam sessions Braun
attended as a teenager in Chicago.
The pianist informally talked to
the, as usual, large Ann Arbor
crowd asking them to sing along
(he even asked them to take over
once when his voice went hoarse
for a verse). He shared the same
camaraderie with the other musi-
cians, joking with Heard and trading
jive with Belgrave.
"I realized about halfway through
the show after they joined me that
it was like it used to be for me in
the old days when I used to just sit
in the corner and play the piano,"
Braun said.
But the piano players assessment
of Saturday night's show is modest.
Braun was the leader of the group,
calling out key and tempo changes
that took the ensemble through the
blues, fast-paced boogie-woogie,
and slowed them down on ballads.
He occasionally assumed the role as
vocalist, too and surprised audience
member and local musician Tracy
Lee by inviting her onstage to sing
with the band. The result surprised
Marcus Bellgrave and George Ben-
son as well. Braun called out a
honky tonk number for Lee to sing,
a style not usually included in the
Detroit jazz artists' repetoire.
But of course Belgrave and Ben-
son, both first-rate musicians, han-
dled the transition with ease, blow-
ing solos to the honky tonk tempo
with delight. And then another au-
dience member was called up, boo-
gie-woogie great Bob Seeley, who
played solo and also shared the
ivories with Braun, their combined
20 fingers pounding out a belting
And then there was Heard. Al-
ways constant with the tempo and
pleasing the crowd with his classy
showmanship and hocus-pocus so-
los. "He's the most professional
person you'll ever meet," says
Braun of Heard. "He's real respon-
sible and together but at the same
time he's just naturally fun and he
loves to play."
Finally, after a two-hour-plus set,
the show concluded with Braun
alone on stage performing the en-
"I've always loved to play alone.
I've been saying that for years,"
comments Braun, who after having
such a good time with Heard and
friends, is having a change of heart.
"But just recently I've started to
enjoy playing with other people
more. For years I used to love just
playing be myself. Now I really

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Mr. B's fingers have played up a strong local following.

enjoy playing with a real good
drummer. He doesn't have to be
J.C. Heard because there is only
one of those."
And the only place Braun would
have the opportunity to perform
with this particular drummer is the
Detroit area. However, Braun real-
izes these opportunities are few and
far between - the scene is not the
most fertile for boogie-woogie pi-
ano players. But for the time being,
Braun is willing to accept that.
"I like the home life here in Ann
Arbor. I like being near the Great
Lakes, I like being in the Midwest,
I like having space around me, I
like the mentality of the town for
the most part. As far as the scene,
it's discouraging that the town is
building more office spaces and less
performing arts centers, but still I
like it here."
And, indeed, Ann Arbor likes
Braun and his boogie-woogie here
as well. In the same town where

local vocalists the Chenille Sisters
can sell ont the Power Center,
Braun can sell out two Ark shows.
It's a friendly atmosphere and it's
something the pianist has worked
hard for and appreciates.
"I'm really proud of the way
people support people like me. I
don't take it for granted that I have
such a good following in this town.
I won it the hard way. I won it by
hauling pianos out in the sun in
100 degree temperatures," says
Braun referring to his annual Art
Fair stint at the corner of South and
East University. It's a something
Braun started seven years ago. Now
it's an Art Fair staple.
"People come by and say, 'Oh,
we come by every year and we
brought our grandmother from
Benton Harbor!' It's really turned
into something."
Interestingly, Braun finds that it's
the people who aren't normally ex-
posed to the music - those who

wander upon his playing at Art Fair
- who enjoy his music the most.
"To them it's a more poignant ex-
perience because they're not accus-
tomed to it and enjoying it. And
they're shocked by it all. These are
some of the people that just stay
and come back day after day."
It's how Braun, who realizes the
music he loves will never reach
staggering commercial heights, has
spread the word about his boogie-
woogie. "Slowly, by slowly, by
slowly, people pay attention and
they listen and they come back and
they support you and they encour-
age you. If I walk into a bank peo-
ple say, 'Hey Mr. B! How are you
doing? Nice to see you! How are
you feeling today? Not that I want
to be exalted or treated any differ-
ently. People are nice to me in this
town because they appreciate me.
That means a lot to me. I'm com-
fortable here for that reason."

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