In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the iconic Hollywood Bowl closed its doors for the first time in its nearly 100-year-old history. Legendary street musician Ken Warfield, aka the Sax Man, finds support from the Angelenos he’s serenaded as they made their way to the Bowl.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic recently announced the cancelation of the Hollywood Bowl’s 2020 summer season. With the closure, more than 250 Hollywood Bowl employees were furloughed or laid off — along with one unofficial employee.
That would be the Sax Man, aka Ken Warfield.
A fixture of Hollywood Bowl season, the street musician and his horn have been making music in the pedestrian tunnel that spills out into the Bowl for 36 years. In the summertime, almost nightly, he serenades concert-goers with the likes of Miles, Coltrane and his own originals, along with the occasional marionette performance.
“I would say I’ve been to over a thousand concerts in Los Angeles in the last 16 years. I go out a lot,” says Lorn Conner, a regular during Bowl season who used to run the video concert blog You Tell Concerts. “Ken was my first introduction to the Bowl. I remember walking into that tunnel, hearing his sax play down the corridor and thinking wow, this is magical. I feel like I’m in a movie.”
Later, he befriended Warfield when he discovered they were neighbors. They would often walk together as Conner strolled to his office in Hollywood. Most days Warfield brightened his outlook. “If you’re having a bad day, Ken is the one who puts it in perspective,” Conner says.
When he initially heard about the Hollywood Bowl season closure, Warfield was the first person Conner thought of. “I thought, “What’s Ken going to do?” Conner says, adding that he was particularly concerned considering the government’s economic relief efforts weren’t likely to be available to Warfield. “There’s so many layers to this disaster and so many people who need help who aren’t going to be able to get help.”
To aid his friend, he decided to start a GoFundMe for the legendary street musician with a goal of $8,000. While he hopes to generate some economic support for his friend, the campaign is also a nudge to Angelenos to celebrate the joy that Warfield’s music brought us while en route to a concert at the Bowl for so many years.
For his part, Warfield was hesitant at first to accept Conner’s efforts, but he has since decided to see them as a blessing. “God takes care of me,” Warfield says. “The Hollywood Bowl has been a wonderful blessing for me. Not only the people who come by and have blessed me and to help me make my little meager living but also the people that work at the Bowl — from the top of the line all the way down to the volunteers.”
At age 72, Warfield doesn’t have plans to put down the sax anytime soon. To this day, he continues to tool around with music at home. “I have nine different instruments that I play — I play music every day,” he says. He goes on leisurely walks in Hollywood, his long-time neighborhood just blocks away from the Bowl, playing his recorder as he strolls with his little dog, Sandy Blue II.
Warfield grew up in South Los Angeles, where his mom still lives, and he studied music at Los Angeles City College. He played in bands all over Los Angeles and traveled as far as Europe, including Switzerland, Italy and Holland, performing on the bass accompanying soul legend Solomon Burke.
Later, he worked as a custodian at the La Brea Tar Pitts — until one day he had an epiphany.
“There was a fellow that used to play banjo in the park nearby. I watched him and he had out his little tip box,” Warfield says — and just like that he was inspired. “I retired my little custodial thing and I started playing my saxophone in the park. One day, someone came up put a dollar in my case, and I go, ‘Oh, I think I’m working now.’”
He treated it like his day job. Showing up daily. Waking up early in the morning and playing all day, taking a lunch break with a sandwich. “I was actually making just as much money or more than I was making when I was working,” he says. “Now, I still had a so-called meager existence, but nonetheless, I was doing what I wanted to do.”
Not too long after he moved his street performances to Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Boulevard, Warfield found his audience at the Hollywood Bowl. It was such a welcoming setting — filled with music lovers, spellbinding concerts and majestic, tall oaks — that he’s been there for every season for more than three decades. Among those many years, he made friends with the staff at the Bowl and many other visitors, just like Conner.
“I have a feeling for all those people who love to go to the Bowl and will miss the Bowl. I will miss it too.” Warfield says. “But at the same time, I’m breathing in and out. I’m in reasonably good health, and I’m just living my simple life.”