How he became "The Sax Man"

I don’t know about you but every year around Spring I receive the Hollywood Bowl Calender. It is not only a reminder that summer is around the corner but of great times. What a pleasure it is to know that again my friends and I are going to get together and enjoy beautiful Summer nights at the Bowl listening great music.  The experience of the Bowl begins when you walk down the steps through the tunnel and feel a warm welcome of music echoing thru the tunnel. From a distance you see the Sax Man playing suave music. A tradition at the Bowl, this being Ken’s 29th season, greets us all to another lovely night of music and good times.

An accomplished bass and saxophone player who toured Europe playing for Solomon Burke (the founding father of soul music), a native of South Central, Ken’s interest in music goes back to his childhood. In junior high he was introduced to the baritone horn though it did not last for very long. In High School he did not play music because of his interest in computers.  After graduation Ken got a job as a computer operator.  One day a co-worker played a Jimmy Hendrix record and Kenny became fascinated by Hendrix’s guitar.  Kenny went and bought himself one.  However, after two weeks Kenny realized it was not the instrument he identified with. After listening to The Sly & Family Stone an influential psychedelic soul/funk band and founder Larry Graham (ranked #3 on Digital Dreamdoor’s list of 100 Greatest Rock Bass Guitarist of All Time), Ken decided the bass guitar was what he was looking for. His early experience with the baritone horn (bass and baritone horn were very similar) lead Ken to buy a bass guitar.

Kenny doesn’t have a classical education and could not read music. He learned how to play by listening-- “You put the record on and you learn one note at time”. He practiced everyday and one day sitting in a friend’s house drinking beer, listening Latin Jazz music his friend’ wife came out of the kitchen and mentioned how good they sounded. His friend John said, “we should have a band”. Ken hollered,  “I have a bass”, another one “I have a guitar”, somebody else had drums.  A few days later there were 15 people in a room with an instrument and none had a clue of how to play. They played the record and everybody listened carefully. You learn your part and for every song they played the same routine. The neighbor hooked them up with their first gig but they never played. They were so nervous that the band broke up and the gig was canceled. After a few weeks seven of them came back but this time a saxophonist who had a little bit more music knowledge gave this group of friends who grew up together some direction and they ended up getting call for another gig.  The band needed a name and they called themselves “Acapulco Soul”.

Latin Jazz was the band’s inspiration because back then Ken’s friends were coming back from the Army and it was the genre they were listening and playing.  Latin musicians such as Tito Puente and Ray Barretto and some Jazz musicians such as Lee Morgan, John Coltrane among others, influenced Acapulco Soul. They were playing all over Los Angeles.  At the California State University Jazz Festival they had the pleasure to share the stage for a song with the legendary Herbie Hancock who played the tambourine. The band had a great time for probably three years but Ken wanted to venture out by himself and try different things.

Ken left Acapulco Soul and started to play with some blues and rock roll bands, and as he said “traveling about”. During this time Ken continued to learn and improve his bass techniques.  Around 1974 while playing with his younger brother Michael who played the saxophone, they were part of a band called Solid which played mostly Blues. He described the experience as magic to be on stage playing music with his brother. Needless to say, inspired by his brother, Kenny walked to a pawnshop and bought a saxophone. He kept it in the closet for a few months since he had no idea of how to play. Than one day Michael asked him to put his sax together and gave him a lesson. Ken was introduced for the first time to chromatic scale (musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone apart). A few months later his brother was assassinated.

After his brother’s passing, Ken did not touch his sax again for five years.  During this time Kenny was making a living working as a custodian at the La Brea Tarpits.  After a while and with very little understanding of chromatic scale Ken started to take his sax everyday to work and started to practice after work hours in the park. Again he had to find songs that he liked such as Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Mitchell Parish, and learn by ear. Every note, step-by-step, just taking one note at time and writing the letters A, B, C he finally learn how to play. Inspired by Charlie Cox a fellow musician who played the banjo in the park but also made a little money with a little tip basket.   Ken liked the idea and decided to quit his job to play music full time.

Ken’s first place was on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in front of the old May Company building. At 8:00 o’clock in the morning Ken was already playing. Some days were good others were bad. Still learning songs but making a living he also went on to play outside Canters Restaurant on Fairfax. Finally in 1983 someone suggested that he should go to the Hollywood Bowl. When he got there and asked the security guard where he could play, off course the answer was no “you cannot play here”. Kenny just had finished reading a book in positive affirmation and thinking and everything positive, positive… “You acknowledge, you understand but… you don’t give up”. He asked again and again and again until the security finally pointed in the direction off Highland Avenue; it was out of his jurisdiction and he could play somewhere over there. Walking through the tunnel under Highland Avenue, halfway through, he said to himself  “I am in the tunnel and I am in Highlands”. Kenny found his spot at the end of the tunnel were he has been playing for the last 29 years.

At first there were times when life was not so good. You would think that one would make a lot of money because people come to the Bowl to listen music and would appreciate him. “It is not necessarily true”. Sometimes Kenny would play between six to seven hours and he would go home with just a few dollars.  Some days feeling discouraged at the end of the night he would sit on the bench and cry of disappointment of human kind. His love for music and the desire to get better kept him playing his sax every day.

Over the years the Sax Man has seen the best and worse in people. For him the most appreciative and respectful are the employees of the Hollywood Bowl.  At the end of the night when they are going home they show how grateful they are to have him as part of the team. When he first started to play there, back then the Bowl’s Superintendent of Operations was a fellow named Patton S. Moore. Patton sent his assistant Ed Tom now the Director of Operations of the Bowl with a dollar to give to him because he liked the way he played Stardust. For Ken it meant he was welcoming him to the Bowl. It was also an acknowledgement of his presence. Over the years Kenny’s experienced some unpleasant moments but overall he is very thankful for all the years and for so many unforgettable moments of joy. He has seen so many generations and so many people coming and going. And as he said “every year he is looking forward to come back to the tunnel at the Hollywood Bowl for another season” and in 29 years Kenny (have lost less the 10 concerts—what?). 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks SO much for writing this! Love your photo of Ken. (I didn't know his name until now) I've been going to the Bowl for 30+ years and he is an integral part of my joy during those summer evenings!