Steps from the most celebrated music venue in Los Angeles, a humble jazz journeyman has made a darkened underpass his stage for the past thirty-one years.
The sounds of summer in Hollywood begin to stir just after 5:30 p.m, with cars honking staccato, stereo songs blending together and helicopters thrumming above. At the edge of a dark, forty-foot-long underground tunnel just outside of the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater, a sixty-six-year-old man in a dark brown fedora stands in the shadows.
Beyond the Hollywood Bowl’s gates, jazz legend Herbie Hancock prepares to take the stage. Meanwhile outside, Kenneth “Kenny” Warfield unpacks his red keytar and six-pound mini-amplifier. He arranges his music sheets on a stand and sets his hat on the ground to catch dollars and coins from passersby. He takes his saxophone out of its slightly worn leather carrying case and hangs the shiny brass instrument around his neck from a strap. He unfolds a folding chair, takes a seat, and begins to blow, his music piercing the night.
As concertgoers make their way through the tunnel to the Hollywood Bowl, Warfield plays his saxophone, becoming a one-man concert. In between notes, he belts out lyrics he penned himself.
Sometimes while you are walking through the road of life
You might find yourself in one of life’s tunnels
It’s dark. It’s cold
And sometimes even a little bit scary
But don’t worry, for I am here
To remind you that everything is all right
All you have to do is follow the light
– Kenny Warfield, “The Light At the End of the Tunnel.”
He has played gigs in Los Angeles and toured all over the world with notable musicians, but the tunnel has been his mainstay for three decades. Known as the “Sax Man” to Hollywood Bowl employees and longtime patrons, Warfield is the only street performer who has made a permanent residency at the famed tunnel — he’s been here for the past thirty-one years.
Before watching Herbie Hancock and Boz Scaggs, or contemporary artists such as Bruno Mars and Pharrell Williams, many concertgoers first come across Warfield’s melodies. During the busy summer concert season, Warfield is at his usual spot almost every night, working his charm on the crowd and playing jazz standards from Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and others.
This is how he makes his living, but Warfield says it is also one of the few places in Los Angeles with such stellar acoustics where he can perform for free. There was a time when Warfield longed to perform on a vast stage like the one under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl, with people paying tens or even hundreds of dollars to see him. At times, he has come close to living that reality, but it hasn’t lasted. Over the years, Warfield turned the desire to perform under the big, bright lights of a stadium to more humble pursuits: practicing his craft daily through performance, while hopefully bringing a smile to each person who hears his music as they pass him on their way to the Bowl walkway.
“There are people who have called me a beggar,” Warfield says. “There are some who don’t want me to here, but I don’t dwell on that. I don’t beg, borrow or steal. I am here to make an honest living.”
* * *
Warfield grew up in South Los Angeles and remembers experiencing the last of white flight, as Caucasian families began to leave the area and move further north into the San Fernando Valley or south to Orange County. Warfield was two when he picked up a ukulele, a present he received while he spent three months at a hospital because he accidentally swallowed lye, a toxic solution used for cleaning.
Warfield remembers strumming his tiny ukulele in the hospital and quickly gaining attention from hospital staff and fellow patients. His love for music grew from there.
As a student at James A. Foshay Junior High School, Warfield’s fascination with music was fostered by teachers who taught him about various instruments and how to play simple notes. He was drawn to the sound of orchestras and was eager to learn how to play. Warfield initially planned to join the marching band when he entered Dorsey High School, but instead focused his energy on running track and other sports.
His passion for music, however, never waned. Warfield continued to listen to classical music, but also grooved to records by Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Four Tops and other soul musicians. Music and running track kept him busy and out of trouble.
Louis Armstrong, one of Warfield’s favorite jazz musicians, once wrote, “My only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue.” Warfield sometimes wondered the same.
It was the second or third day of the Watts Riots, in August of 1965, when Warfield was driving home with his older brother, Maurice, and some female friends after a day at the beach. Police pulled him over, surrounded the vehicle and drew their guns on the teenage boys.
Warfield raised his hands as more than a dozen officers pointed their gun at the vehicle. Officers asked the girls — who were white — if they were all right.
“I think they were worried we had taken the girls, or something like that,” Warfield recalls. “When the girls told them we were all friends, they finally let us go and told us to go home. Driving home, all you see were tanks and the National Guard rolling up on Fourth Avenue and Exposition Park. It was crazy…and something you never forget.”
After graduating from Dorsey High in 1966, Warfield decided to put away his dreams of becoming a musician. He wanted to find a more stable way to make money and help his mother, Fannye, who worked at the post office and was raising seven children. Warfield never knew his father Maurice, but his mother always said, “He was always good to me, but he got into some trouble with police.” Fannye ended up marrying four times, and each were “good stepfathers,” Warfield said.
He started working a nine-to-five at Rexall Drug Company on Wilshire Boulevard, where he did payroll and other office functions as a computer operator. It was during a lunch break when Warfield first heard the voice of Jimi Hendrix on the radio, his electric guitar screeching along to “Wait Until Tomorrow”:
Oh, what a hang,
Your daddy just shot poor me
And I hear you say, as I fade away
We don’t have to wait till tomorrow
Hendrix’s raw delivery and powerful words struck Warfield. When he told a co-worker about the Hendrix song, he offered to teach Warfield to play it on his guitar.
Warfield played the record over and over again, imitating the notes. He did not know how to read music, so he played by ear. He purchased a ten-dollar guitar from his friend and began his journey into rock n’ roll.
But the guitar didn’t entirely suit him, so Warfield decided to try the bass. He went out and bought Sly Stone records and tried to imitate the keys. Another co-worker, his supervisor, happened to play the bass, and Warfield would sometimes play with him.
Music education is all about practicing and listening to records over and over again “until you got it right,” Warfield learned. He decided to pick up the trumpet too, and repeated the pattern: listen to records, play, repeat.
His friends in the neighborhood also joined in and taught themselves how to play, and soon Warfield and fifteen others formed a Latin jazz band called Acapulco Soul. To get the hang of notes, the group listened to Roy Ayers, the Fania All-Stars and other Latin jazz and jazz musicians. Soon the hodgepodge group booked a neighborhood party, but even before that first gig, Warfield says more than half of the band quit because of stage fright.
The remaining members kept practicing, getting better, and they were soon playing gigs at family parties, social functions, corporate events and small clubs. One of the highlights was opening for Herbie Hancock at a show at Cal State Los Angeles.
While Warfield played bass for the band, he also was interested in the saxophone.
He would often watch and listen to his younger brother, Michael, a painter, who played the instrument. In 1973, Warfield bought a saxophone from a pawn shop and Michael taught him how to play scales. He continued his self-education by doing what he did best: listen to records, play, repeat.
Michael was killed in December 1975, just a few days after his twenty-second birthday. He was painting at a massage parlor in Santa Monica where his girlfriend worked, when a man walked into the business and started harassing the girl. The stranger then pulled a gun on Michael, who pushed the weapon away. As Michael grabbed his girlfriend and walked away, the man came up from behind and shot Michael in the head.
After his brother’s death, Warfield stashed his saxophone in a closet. It was too painful to play; each key brought back a memory of his brother.
He kept playing bass, but this time with another band called Solid. He played with the group at small clubs in the city, but by the time Warfield was twenty-five, the musical gigs still were not paying enough. He got a job as a custodian at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.
Five years had passed since his brother’s murder. “One day, I was working at the museum and I decided I just had to play that saxophone.”
Warfield took the saxophone out of his closet. He began practicing and relearning the chromatic scales his younger brother Michael taught him.
As summer days began to wane
I search my mind for ways to spend my time
Away from hallways filled with lights while
Darkened corners whisper low and call my name
They say that fall is near … your work is done
My bags are packed and a raindrop falls, I shed a tear
To cleanse my soul … my heart cries out its time
It’s time for me to go…
– Kenny Warfield, “Sax Man.”
* * *
Playing jazz saxophone had always been one of the more challenging instruments Warfield came across in his musical career. But something about it called to him.
“Saxophone just speaks jazz … and it is very difficult music,” Warfield says. “If you can play jazz, you can play music. It’s the personal interpretation of jazz music, but also the connection to history that, as a black man, I relate to.”
After reuniting with the saxophone, Warfield decided to start performing on the streets. He would go early to the La Brea Tar Pits, and after finishing his custodial work he played his saxophone for the kids and parents who frequented the museum.
Today, Warfield smiles as he looks at a 1981 photo of himself playing his saxophone while still in his all-white custodian uniform with Tar Pit’s model mammoths in the background, as if raising their trunks to the music.
In 1983, Warfield quit his custodial job and enrolled at Los Angeles City College to study music. There he joined various performance groups on campus and even played professionally with the Los Angeles Mandolin Orchestra.
To make ends meet, Warfield decided to test out what he learned in front of the toughest audiences on street corners in Los Angeles. He ventured into the Hollywood Bowl.
At first, he first tried setting up his area closer to the gates, but found better acoustics underground. He set up his equipment at the base of the stairs, at the end of the tunnel.
Goodbye …Goodbye my sunshine dreams
For comes the night with a chill and a new
Song to sing … as the melody flows from the
Highs to the lows, so the people will come and
The People will go … still, the music will live
In the walls that resound in the dead of the
Night when there’s no one around.
– Kenny Warfield, “Sax Man.”
A young artist who also worked as support staff at the Hollywood Bowl was so inspired by Warfield that he drew a sketch of him as he played. The artist, Eric Brummer, called the piece “Under the Tunnel with the Sax Man.” The name stuck.
In 1986, Warfield heard that the R&B and soul music singer Solomon Burke was looking for musicians to fill spots in his band for a European tour. Warfield, who was thirty-eight at the time, auditioned at a church in South Los Angeles, where Burke was also a preacher. He had one day to learn his parts from a tape of songs, but Warfield made the cut and was chosen to play on the tour. The group went to seventeen cities all over Germany, including East Berlin.
The feeling of playing in front of screaming fans in large venues was a thrill, but his first venture out of the country was not without some challenges. In between cities, the band would try to get rest and a warm meal. Some of the restaurants took one look at Warfield and other black members of the band and refused to serve them.
“I’ve faced racism all of my life, and I didn’t let it bother me,” Warfield says. “We just moved on to the next town. It taught me there are good people and bad people everywhere you go.”
Warfield continued to tour with Burke’s band the following year throughout Europe, including Switzerland, Rome and other cities in Italy. When the tour ended, however, Warfield decided he needed to go back to school. Reading and learning how to write music was a lifelong discipline, and he wanted to become an expert at his chosen craft. Warfield also decided to set up permanent shop at the Hollywood Bowl.
Through the years, Warfield had managed to support himself and his pet Chihuahua, Sandy Blue, with money he earns at the Bowl and small gigs here and there in the city. He has no family of his own, but still helps his mother financially from time to time.
Warfield has seen different generations come through that tunnel. Many stop by, place a few dollars into his hat and take the time to listen to him play. While he takes playing his music in the tunnel seriously, Warfield always manages to joke around, tell stories or just catch up with folks who pass by — many have become friends over the years.
When people ask if he would someday like to perform on the grand Hollywood Bowl stage, he smiles and says he would rather play his saxophone down here.
Although there have been slow days throughout the years, Warfield said his take-home pay each night could be “about the same as working at McDonald’s” or sometimes more. Every night is different,, but he doesn’t mind getting by on what some people might call a “meager living.”
“I’ve already played on stages twice as large as the Bowl, but I am here at this spot because it is my choice,” he says. “I work, but I also work on learning how to play. Music is a lot more then being able to play — it is a lifetime endeavor.”
I close my eyes and hear the sounds
Of shuffling feet that sometimes pass so
Silently with hopes to remain unknown
– Kenny Warfield, “Sax Man.”
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Marjorie Hernandez is a staff reporter for the Ventura County Star who covers breaking news, courts and entertainment. Follow her on twitter @Mjae13.
John Francis Peters is a Los Angeles based photographer specializing in documentary, portrait, and commercial projects. His diverse body of work ranges from the portraiture of influential personalities to essays on emerging culture and environments in transition.