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Riffs, Regrets and Random Notes From the Sax Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Turn your back on the gaping Hollywood Bowl, and walk away from all those musicians who earn their living in tuxes. Pass the binocular renters and the souvenir sellers and the gift shop hawking serving trays adorned with Mozart minuets. Skip the sushi bar and the wine-on-wheels counter, and just as the road dips below Highland Avenue, you’ll find a cool stretch of white underground they call the Sax Man’s Tunnel.

“When people walk out that tunnel,” says Bowl parking staffer Bryant de Piazza, “they say, ‘That guy can play.’ ”

At the moment, the Sax Man of tunnel fame is crouching atop a tattered red-and-blue sax case at the mouth of the tunnel, and he’s serenading the passing throng with the theme from, well, “The Flintstones.” Just call it the Symphony for the Common Man, always a popular number here in Bowl territory, that most democratic of music palaces.

“People need the music,” says the Sax Man, a.k.a. Ken Warfield, 43. “They need it on the way in, and they need it on the way out. After they get there, they get it, and then they still need some more, so I provide it.”

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For the most part, the Sax Man’s throng insists on passing, children and ice chests in hand, oblivious to his solo strains of “Stardust,” “Baby Face” and “Old MacDonald.” Warfield is one of a few Bowl regulars who know an immense captive audience when they see one, 17,619 strong when the joint is sold out. That’s quite the desirable commodity in this attention-thirsty town--even if the audience is mercilessly on the move.

But Warfield keeps playing anyway. Now and then people surface from the pedestrian tide. A young blond woman in a short black skirt scoops up a couple of purple plastic Koosh balls at Warfield’s feet, which he keeps on hand in case he feels a sudden urge to juggle. She thrusts them at his chest, chirps, “Go at it,” then skips away without surrendering a dime.

A man in his 50s drops a buck in his basket and asks for “Baby Face,” but he doesn’t stick around to hear it. Another man in dirty gray pants stands over the musician expectantly. Warfield hands him a cigarette, the man thanks him and shuffles off quickly, as the food chain shifts into reverse.

Two tow-headed children dash over to Warfield and drop coins in his basket, whereupon a marionette that had been dangling from his music stand springs to life.

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“Hey, don’t call me a puppet,” Warfield burbles in a squeaky puppet voice, as Johnny the Sailor flops about. “I’m a marionette, not a puppet. Don’t ever say that.”

So what if marionettes and puppets are cut from the same cloth. Warfield, who lives in walking distance, has been playing the tunnel more concert nights than not for the past nine years, one year shy of his entire sax-playing career. It’s tough work relying upon the kindness of strangers.

“People don’t appreciate street musicians around here,” says Warfield, who ekes out a living--he declines to say how much--with state assistance. “There’s a small percentage of people who are very kind and there’s a large percentage of people who are unaware.”

But there have been good turns. Once a minister gave him a new sax. And sometimes people hire him for parties. He was playing outside Canter’s Deli until they finally invited him in for a meal and a song.

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Warfield also has played official music venues, like the Jazz Lounge at the Mondrian Hotel. He says he toured Germany in ’87 with the Solomon Burke band, but a good job is hard to find, and the only steady gig has turned out to be the tunnel. But hey.

“When I started learning how to play sax, it sounded terrible,” Warfield says. “I find when you play in tunnels, it makes it sound sweet.”

Warfield taught himself how to play as a child, starting out on the bass guitar. “I bought an instrument and books and made up my own method. I played notes to see what happened, and I played notes until I got more notes.”

He studied music at Los Angeles Community College in the late ‘70s and played guitar in a band called Acapulco Soul. Then 10 years ago, he switched to alto sax.

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“My brother and I used to play sax, and he and I used to play together, and my brother was killed in 1975. He was killed in Hollywood. Somebody shot him. So five years later I decided to start sax.”

Warfield breaks into the theme from “Leave It to Beaver,” then segues into that Beethoven hit “Fur Elise,” hepped up with a smidge of jazz. He looks like one cool cat in his fuzzy green beret. If he had his druthers, he’d be playing in a band or recording his own music. But since druthers are hard to come by, the tunnel will do for now.

“I have a love for music. If I didn’t play music, I can’t say what I’d be doing. Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast, so I’m the one who soothes the savage beast. And I’m still working on it.”

Indeed, Warfield has his work cut out for him.

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“Most people think you’re weird if you’re outside on the streets playing music. They think you’re strange. We’re all strange. It’s just that some of us don’t know it.”


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