When Dan “Danny” Kean shares the story of his journey as a musician and growing into the person he is today, one of the most striking tales is of first learning to be free.
For 20 years, Kean played ragtime piano in his red pickup in just about every parade possible along the East Coast, but he had never improvised or even randomly smashed his hand down on piano keys. That’s a different person, Kean might say today. Kean began experimenting with playing music for at least a few minutes a day that was completely improvised. While playing in nature, near a hiking trail, a man heard the music and discovered Kean but kept walking. Kean called out to the man and, according to Kean, the man started crying and explained he had thought he was in heaven. Kean invited the man to play the piano in the back of the pickup.
For the past five years, Kean has been traveling the Northern Hemisphere with his trusty red pickup, a piano, and a canine companion and he seems to have found his calling. For Kean, it’s about three things: fun, friendship, and respect. He travels and, along the way, makes friends and invites people to share in a musical experience. Kean will explain he doesn’t perform or put on shows and he doesn’t ask for money. His favorite part, it seems, is inviting people to take a seat at the piano and play, especially people who insist they don’t play.
“I specialize in people who have been psychologically damaged by music lessons,” he said only somewhat jokingly.
For those 20 years Kean was on the parade circuit, he played the same 20 ragtime songs on repeat, usually while driving past people in a parade, never stopping to perform for a crowd. He was afraid. After practicing playing without sheet music, simply improvising, Kean learned to make his own music. He looks jubilant, completely in his element with his fingers gliding over the keyboard, playing his own music. Still, he says he gets the most joy out of seeing other people trying out his piano.
With a solid belief in the positive impact of music, Kean has played and shared in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, In Blacksburg, Va. after the shootings at Virginia Tech University, and in Joplin, Mo. after the recent tornado. He has been traveling through Alaska recently, and has stories from the Bush to the Kenai Peninsula (he, a trombone player and his younger brother crashed the homecoming parade), and now Juneau. One dream he has is to play atop a glacier, although he doesn’t think it will happen, at least not this time.
Kean doesn’t organize performances; he just picks places to play and loves when people discover him, his traveling piano, and Mo the dog. In Juneau he has spent time in Auke Bay, North Douglas, in downtown Juneau, and out Thane Road.
“I wish it wasn’t so cold.” he said when pulling the tarp off the piano in the pickup bed. The piano, actually a keyboard, has not been handling the cold and wet all that well. Neither has Mo, the dog, who sports a dog jacket that was given to them up North. Sometimes, Kean has to take a couple days to dry everything out and he recently took the keyboard to Juneau Electronics to have it fixed up. It’s in good shape, currently.
When Kean first took to the open road with his piano and his dog, Bo, who was with him for 15 years, he sold his house and has since been staying with generous hosts, sometimes found through Couchsurfing.org. Other times people just offer their homes because they’ve heard of him and seen his website. Bo died about a year and a half ago and Kean had originally planned to quit when it happened, but on a serendipitous trip back to West Virginia, a woman told Kean, “I have a dog for you. He’s meant for you, I just know it.” And an English bulldog-beagle mix, Mo, joined Kean’s life. Coincidentally, Mo was born in the same 24-hour period that Bo had died.
Kean frequently talks about fun, which he says is about enjoying life, and relationships, which he says are about respect. It was with his first dog, Bo, he learned mutual respect is the foundation for relationships at all levels, and he has applied this lesson since.
In Anchorage, he invited some rowdy teenagers into the back of the pickup to play, providing one rule: “Just don’t sit or stand on the speaker.” and he remarked “they policed themselves,” a behavior he attributes to respect. He also invited a homeless woman to play and found the reaction astonishing. “She jumped right out of her wheelchair and started climbing up to play. And when she got up there, she could play good!” A bystander had told him she was mentally ill, but that was fine with Kean.
Though still a little self-conscious, he gains energy from his interactions with people and enjoys the relationships he builds. He shared nature is also important to him and philosophizes “to save the world, enjoy it, because then you’re going to care about it.”
He has been a lot of places, Newfoundland to Mexico and beyond, but he says Alaska has been one of the most beautiful places. Kean and Mo are on their way to Sitka now, but the pair has had some great experiences in Juneau in their time here.
“There was this woman carrying seaweed who heard me playing. She was one of my favorites.” he said, “and she followed the sound up the beach.” They were joined be two other women, as well. The woman with the seaweed was a 70-year-old North Douglas resident.
On his adventures, Kean blogs and posts photos and music daily to share with people. You can follow his journey at www.travelingpiano.com.