Light in the dark: Meet San Francisco’s life-saving saxophone player

‘I’d seen hundreds of buskers over the years…but there was something different about this kid’

BART stations can be unforgiving spaces. Windy. Crowded. Dominated by screechy, loud trains. I’ve seen happier people at the DMV.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I descended the escalator onto the Montgomery Street platform, only to hear the soothing and soaring tones of an alto saxophone. On one of the circular benches, splitting the difference between the inbound and outbound trains, Kalin Freeman sat alone, blowing his horn over a track playing Gnarls Barkley’s hit song, “Crazy.”

I’d encountered hundreds of buskers over the years — in New York, Europe and all over San Francisco — but there was something different about this kid. He could really play. And the crowd was into it.

Maybe it’s the pandemic. Our collective loneliness and lack of community over the past couple of years. I know I haven’t been out to see much, if any, live music over that time, so it felt great to stop and listen. Maybe it’s just that Freeman is talented, fingers flying over the keys in smooth syncopation. Maybe we’re all just tired of worrying, choosing to live in the moment for a change, staying present

Regardless of reason, you could see Freeman making a connection with a group of people that usually does all it can to isolate, staring at phones, ear buds firmly in place, creating a barrier to interaction.

He’s cutting through this digital divide with music. I dropped my card in his saxophone case and hoped he’d give me a call. He did. We made plans to meet up the other day.

Turns out he had a helluva story to tell.

Freeman is a product of the East Bay, growing up in Oakland and Richmond, attending Richmond High School, where he played basketball and got into music … by mistake.

“They put me in the wrong class!” said Freeman, 27. “So I went to the class and he put me on the trumpet. I was like, ‘I don’t really like the trumpet. What’s that curvy thing?’ He was like, ‘The sax?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah… that’s the one. He put me on the tenor and it went from there.”

The kid was a natural. He eventually moved over to the alto sax, picked up guitar later on and also works on some digital music, promoting his work on Instagram under the handle @kjfocus.

After high school, Freeman studied at the famed Berklee College of Music, in Boston, but he missed home.

“It was like a six-week program. I did it for two years in the summer,” he said. “And I was like, ‘I want to go back to the Bay! I mean, Boston was cool and all, but ain’t nothing like the Bay. I don’t think anywhere’s really like the Bay, to be honest with you.”

The young man started working various jobs — at Costco, a hotel — but realized he could make a living underground. He started playing at BART stations about six years ago.

“I make a living. … Every time I had a job I always quit because I could just be doing this. I just like making people feel good, just playing, you know?” said Freeman, who commutes in via BART from his home in Richmond. “I see that people like it, so I like it. It makes me want to play better. So that’s nice.”

He’s seen a lot down there. About a month ago, he says he intervened when a disturbed individual pushed an elderly lady down onto the platform. Freeman said he held the guy until the police came and made the arrest. “It’s crazy down here. People feel like they can do whatever they want,” he said.

I think we can all relate to that sentiment. Sometimes, modern-day San Francisco can be overwhelming.

Sometimes, you just need a little hope.

Kalin Freeman smiles between songs at Montgomery BART station. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Kalin Freeman smiles between songs at Montgomery BART station. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

About a year ago, Freeman says he was playing at the station when something remarkable happened.

“I was just playing. I was about to leave and I was tired. But something told me to stay 30 more minutes. So I stayed,” said Freeman. “And I’m playing, have my eyes closed and I open my eyes and there was this letter on this strange type of fiber paper.”

Here’s what it said:

Dear Saxophone Player,

I just lost my parents today and I’m so depressed about it.

I’m homeless and I have NOTHING to look forward to.

I was going to throw myself in front of a BART train … until I heard you playing your sax. It sounds so good and your music so inspirational, that I changed my mind. It made me feel like it was going to be okay. Please… Please… Please keep doing what you’re doing. Cuz you saved a life today. I’m sure my kids appreciate you. Thank you for the change of heart. Seriously, Thank You!

Your #1 Fan, CJ541

That’s some heavy stuff. From what I can tell, it changed two lives.

“It was just a note. I didn’t even get to see the guy,” said Freeman. “I really could have just left.”

“So, at that time, I was like, ‘You know what? This is gonna be my main thing. And that’s really what I’m really doing out here. I know this is my purpose.”

That’s why you can find KJFocus blowing his horn far below Market Street, bringing light to a dark place, in a dark time.

“Music is everything. Music is vibration, and everything is vibration,” the young man told me. “You know, when you listen to good music, it’s human. It actually heals your soul, heals your body. By me coming down here and just playing, you never know who may be really feeling bad and feeling down. It may just make their day better. Just like that guy that sent me that note. So that’s what I think about when I come down here. Even if I make money, or I don’t make money. I know I’m at least helping one person. So that’s helping me.”

And that’s helping us all.

Editor’s note: The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

A passing stranger dropped this letter into Kalin Freeman’s donations box at the Montgomery Street BART station, where he often plays saxophone for the gathered commuters. The letter spelled out a life-changing moment for the anonymous author who had almost jumped in front of a train, but stopped himself after hearing Freeman play. (Kalin Freeman)

A passing stranger dropped this letter into Kalin Freeman’s donations box at the Montgomery Street BART station, where he often plays saxophone for the gathered commuters. The letter spelled out a life-changing moment for the anonymous author who had almost jumped in front of a train, but stopped himself after hearing Freeman play. (Kalin Freeman)

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