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.