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Ann Arbor Musician "Mr. B" Brings A Different Form Of Art To Annual Art Fair 40 Years In A Row!


There are paintings and sculptures and many different forms of creative art at the Ann Arbor Art Fair running July 18-21st.

But art comes in many forms, and, as 89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry reports, one local musician has been performing on the street and now in his own “art” booth for the past four decades!

Since 1980, Mark Braun known as “Mr. B” has been rolling out his piano onto the streets of downtown Ann Arbor and entertaining art fair goers with many hours of live music.  This will be his 40th year in a row appearing at the Ann Arbor Art Fair, starting back in 1980 in his early 20’s.  Mr. B played on his own for the first 15 years but has been officially invited by Ann Arbor Street Art Fair organizers for the past 25 years.  He says the energy is definitely different in his latest location…

Credit Mr B
Mr. B in his early days playing piano at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

“In the old days, on the old corner, it was very wild. There were all sorts of stories that I couldn’t begin to tell on the radio. It was wild. It was a wild scene. It was near all the bars there. It was real street busking.”

When he started playing piano at the Art Fair at the corner of East and South University, he had to fight for a spot as performers came from all over the world to showcase their performance “art” at which is technically four different art fairs taking place at once.

Credit Mr. B
“Early days” Ann Arbor Art Fair performance with Dick Siegel

But Mr. B says, when they moved the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair to the North University area, he moved with them and now plays some ten hours a day on North University near Hill Auditorium and the Michigan League.  I asked him if he gets requests.

“Yeah, Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie people ask for a lot. This is coming up on its 100th anniversary too. This tune came out in 1927. I hope that I’m still playing piano in the year when this is 100 years ago. This is good on the street. I’ve had dancers come by the dozens. Whole dance clubs that come to Ann Arbor that know that I’m gonna be out there and come by and dance. Just individuals. And there ya go.”

Credit Mr. B
People dancing to Mr. B's music at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

The weather is typically extra hot during the annual art fair, and Mr. B says performing 11 hours each day takes a toll on his hands, so he has developed a routine that begins with first cleaning the piano keys very well with furniture polish.

“It cleans the keys off and gets the dirt off; makes them real slippery. Now, if a normal pianist went up and played the keyboard that had keys that slippery, you’d hate it. But for me, to play all day like that, I don’t want there to be any friction on my fingers cause it wears down my hands real hard. So I do that, and I wash my hands constantly and keep ‘em clean and I put baby powder on them. So then, I ice my hands all day long, so I have an ice bucket that I can put my hands right down over my wrists up to my forearms and it keeps the inflammation at bay from so much exercise.”

Mr. B

He has some regulars who come, sit, and spend hours listening to him play and others share their memories: telling him….

“I used to come here when I was in a stroller on your old corner, and they’re standing there and their kids are in the stroller. Some cases now three generations I’ve been doing this now for forty years. So there are a lot of people that don’t see me at the Ark. They don’t know that I play concerts around the world. They just think that I’m the guy that plays piano at the Art Fair; which I am. And that’s where they see, that’s the only way they see me, and they come out year after year.”

He’s not paid but plays for tips and merchandise sales but says the best payoff is the feedback from people who listen and have connected with what he’s doing.

“I mean, really, with tears in their eyes I can tell that this happened to me dozens and dozens of times. People have said, ya know, mentioned a tough spot in their life, or something their mother was going through, or something and they came down and they sat with me and they enjoyed it for a little while. And they, how much it really ya know the value and the strength of music. And people say what it means to them and how it’s made them feel and how it’s may be healed them or made their day better.

Credit Ann Arbor Art Fair
Mr B commemorative “40 year” t-shirt being sold at 2019 Art Fair.

He admits playing over 40 hours of piano on the streets of Ann Arbor there will be some repeats but adds most every song has a story.

"The story that I like to tell about this is that I was playing with JC Heard one time in a concert, a great Detroit drummer, and he said that’s some belly rubbin’ music. We’ll leave some for those that come, right Come on down folks! Forty years of doing it street. Mr. B, yours truly. Please come down and say hello!”

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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