Certain summer traditions in are L.A. sacrosanct. One is that the Hollywood Bowl will deliver evening after evening of world-class music; another is that each time you enter the pedestrian tunnel beneath Highland Avenue, you’ll hear the mellow notes of a saxophone playing a tune keyed to the evening’s program, and as you emerge you’ll find a lean, beret-wearing musician playing for tips at the foot of the stairs.
When we lived at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, I used to see this hep cat at the Mayfair Market, often with a little Scottish terrier on a leash.
Recently we stopped to chat, and learned his name is Ken Warfield, though many people know him as “The Sax Man.” An L.A. native with family ties to Meridian, Mississippi, he says he’s been playing at the Bowl every night of the season since the early 1980s. Every night! He says he also plays regularly on Monday nights in the Kibitz Room at Canter’s Deli.
He explained: “About 26 years ago I was playing in the street somewhere and a fellow said to me, ‘Why don’t you go on up to the Hollywood Bowl? That’s where all the guys are,” he said. “I came over and asked the security guard, ‘Where can I play?” and he said, ‘Not here.’ And I asked him again, ‘Well then, where can I play?’ and he said, ‘Not here.’ So I asked him a third time. And he said, ‘Why don’t you go across Highland or down in the tunnel?’ I started out in the middle of tunnel, but then I moved out here where I can breathe. I’ve been coming here ever since.”
Hanging out with The Sax Man for even a few minutes, like we did, is a trip. All kinds of people stopped to shoot him a smile, a high five, or a handshake. One guy stopped to harmonize on vocals.
I asked him about his favorite music. “I love all of it,” he said. “John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Dexter Gordon. They don’t even have to be saxophone players. Some of them just live and breathe.”
The Sax Man said he used to operate computers for a living, but he hasn’t touched one since 1975. He doesn’t own one; doesn’t need one. Imagine that, anymore. “I decided to follow my heart,” he says of his career path. “And my heart led me to my real future.”
One night when I left the Bowl early I heard him playing a slow serenade in the acoustic chamber of those concrete walls — the real stuff, what he plays for himself. I think I heard his heart then. Here’s a link to a YouTube video someone posted of Ken doing a Coltrane-style jam that sounds a little like what I heard.
Hats off to The 99 Cent Chef, who took the photos for this post while I took notes.