With No Hollywood Bowl This Year, 'Sax Man' Looks For Light At The End Of The Tunnel
The Palais Garnier might have had the Phantom of the Opera. But the Hollywood Bowl has the Sax Man. At least it used to.
If you've passed through the tunnel that bores under Highland Avenue on your way to or from a show at the Bowl in the past 36 years, you've heard the sweet sound of an alto saxophone belonging to one Ken Warfield, aka "Sax Man." But with the cancellation of the 2020 season at the hundred-year-old amphitheater — compounding the crushing blow to musicians, audiences, and paid staff — comes the silencing of this unsung Hollywood legend.
"I was so looking forward to my 37th year," Warfield said by phone this week, audibly crying. "But that's not gonna be at this time. But when they open again, by God's grace I look to be there to see all of my friends."
Warfield's repertoire is a mix of jazz standards — Coltrane, Miles — and original tunes like "Hollywood Bowl Days and Nights." He plays an alto because it has "the best sound for the tunnel," as well as a keyboard. His dog, a dachshund/chihuahua mix named Sandy Blue II, sits on his lap. "Every now and again," he says, "she'll jump off and go say hi to the people."
Warfield grew up in Los Angeles and is no stranger to heartache. Music has always been the cure.
When he was 2 years old, he ingested some lye, which put him in the hospital for three months. His mom brought him a ukulele, and he taught himself how to play. He sang in the choir and played baritone horn in school, but says he left music to run track in high school because the band director was late to class.
In 1968, Warfield was operating computers at Rexall Drugs when he heard Jimi Hendrix come on the radio. "I decided, 'Uh-oh, I gotta get into music.' I forgot about music," he says. He bought a bass guitar and started a band, Acapulco Soul. They played all over L.A., including for Mayor Tom Bradley at City Hall.
His highest profile gig came when Solomon Burke, a founding father of soul music, took him on a world tour.
Warfield started street performing around 1980 during his time as a custodian at the La Brea Tar Pits. "When I ventured out into the world, I started playing on Wilshire and Fairfax in front of the May Company," he says. "But at the time, the police were a little difficult. They told me, 'Get outta here! Go back to San Francisco.' Well... I was born and raised here."
In 1983, he was playing in front of Canter's Deli on Fairfax, and a guy came by and said, "Hey, why don't you go up to the Hollywood Bowl? Everybody's up there." So he did, on a night during the Playboy Jazz Festival — Count Basie and Herbie Hancock were on the bill that year. He set up near the Bowl side of the tunnel, but a security guard told him he couldn't play there.
"I kept saying, 'Well, thank you sir, but where can I play?'" Warfield recalls. "And finally he said, 'On the other side of Highland.' As I was walking down the stairs in the tunnel, I was singing 'cause I was so happy that I would be able to play."
With the official blessing of the Bowl, Warfield has been down there every summer since, nearly every night during the four-month seasons. He used to set up shop near the stairs leading to the buses, but the fumes made him sick so he moved in just a little west.
He arrives two hours before every show starts, and is "pretty much the last person to leave after all the people have gone home." Music from the venue doesn't penetrate the tunnel ("unless they're playing too loud"), and Warfield keeps on playing even during the show.
"I play because I love the music," he says.
On a few occasions, he's ventured above ground to hear the likes of Ella Fitgerald and Miles Davis take the Bowl — he has a standing invitation from operations director Ed Tom — "and then back into the tunnel."
Every night, a migrating audience of thousands hears a free Warfield concert. Many just walk by, some sing along, some smile and throw in a buck or a pocketful of change.
"There's one fellow who walks by and said, 'I've been watching you for 20 years!'" Warfield says, "and then he throws a couple of dollars in my box. Even though everyone doesn't walk by and tip me, that's okay, because I'm still giving myself to the people, and they find their way to help me make my life wonderful."
This is Hollywood, so naturally the Sax Man has seen his share of weird. There was the guy who came into the tunnel "howling like a wolf" and getting right into Warfield's face. "So I headbutted him," he says. Another time, a pair of ticket scalpers stood in front of Warfield, blocking him from the crowd. He kindly asked them to move aside.
"The next thing I know, some guy had grabbed me, basically picked me up and slammed me on the ground," he says. "While I was falling down, I was thinking, Well, I hope I don't break my saxophone, 'cause then I'm really gonna be mad. All of a sudden the guy got up. I looked to my left, laying there on my back, and there was a gentleman standing there, and he had just shown the unruly character his badge. He was a security guard at the Hollywood Bowl — Art Aguilar is his name — and he basically saved my life that night."
All in all, though, "I've had nothing but wonderful experiences," Warfield says. "Mainly playing my horn, making a few dollars, and making a lot of friends."
An average night yields anywhere from $4o to $100, which he prudently saves and stretches for the year. In the off-season, he roams the streets of Hollywood with Sandy Blue, playing his recorder or harmonica.
At 72, Warfield is on Supplemental Security Income, which provides almost enough to cover his rent (He lives about five miles from the Bowl.) Losing this summer's yield is certainly a blow — a friend surprised him by starting a GoFundMe campaign — but he says he'll be okay.
The harder loss is the sound of music, Warfield says with a lump in his throat, and he tells me a story.
He started playing the sax in 1975. That was the year his brother, a gifted saxophonist, turned 23. He was supposed to sit in with Warfield's band on the night of his birthday, but he never showed. At 3 a.m., Warfield got a call from the police to come down to Santa Monica and Genesee, "and there was my brother laying on the floor with a bullet hole in his head."
"The night that he died, my mom came," he remembers. "I was 27 years old. I said, 'Mommy, Mickey's dead!' And she looked me in the eye, and she said, 'Pull yourself together, son.' And I said, 'I can't even go crazy! That's the worst thing I ever had to see.' And then I said, 'But Mom, I got a gig tonight.' And she said, 'The show must go on, son.' And we had a great gig that night."
"Even though it's the worst thing I ever had to see, it's one of my best blessings," says Warfield, whose mother recently turned 90. "My mom says, 'If you worry, don't pray. But if you pray, don't worry.' And the Hollywood Bowl is probably one of the biggest blessings that I've had. I look forward to the Bowl opening again when it does. The people at the Bowl have been my true blessing — hundreds and hundreds of people come through that tunnel every night, and I have so many friends there that it brings tears to my eyes. I say it's only tears of joy."
LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF THIS STORY FROM TAKE TWO: