IT'S ABOUT half past 9 at the New Haven Lounge in Baltimore. Hassan Sabre, dressed sharply in suit and tie, bows ++ into his alto-saxophone, and prays to his elders: tenor and soprano-saxophonist John Coltrane, alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk.
The crowd, animated, Friday night-festive, bowed over drinks, a chess board, chicken wings, cocks an ear toward Sabre's quartet.
The group is late getting started. The sound system is not top-notch. But the music, such standards as "God Bless the Child," "Freddie Freeloader," "All the Things You Are," comes through, pure and fine.
Just hours before, Sabre, 29, had left his day job at the Woodbourne Residential Treatment Center where he oversees programs for emotionally handicapped youth who have in their past sexual and physical abuse and neglect. Sabre put himself through Morgan State University working in the mental health field, and now it pays the rent. It's hard work, and there are occasions, such as the time one youth slammed Sabre's finger in a door, when it takes all his strength not to explode in anger. But Sabre's training and his temperament support him well.
"One of the things I sort of draw on, when growing up, if I saw a fight on the street, I would try to stop them. . . . I always thought there was a better way to resolve problems than through force and fighting," Sabre says. "As I grew older, I guess that sort of stuck with me."
Much of the week had been taken up by concern for a 15-year-old resident whose parents were not willing to participate in his treatment. Their attitude had left the already-alienated youth sadder, angrier, less able to solve his emotional quandaries. Sabre accompanied him to court where his mother was prepared to give up custody of her son to the city's Social Services Department.
"It was a very trying experience," Sabre said. "You could see the kid escalate, the despair written on his face, [as if to say] 'There's no reason for me to live.'" After a long afternoon of discussion, Sabre persuaded the mother to change her mind and agree to to attend counseling sessions with her son at Woodbourne.
Jazz and working with disturbed kids are not incompatible pursuits, Sabre says. When he plays, Sabre draws from the rich, troubled lives he works with, and returns it to his music: "I can't tell you the number of times I've sat down at the piano and have written compositions based on my involvement in the field, and tried, to perhaps describe a human emotion, and that's what music is about . . . music is a reflection of life."
Sabre was the third of nine children in a Trenton, N.J., household. He has not seen his father since he was 8. Sabre's mother, Frances Rogers, steered her son toward music after reading that wind instruments helped strengthen the lungs of asthmatic children. When Sabre discovered a $10 saxophone among the clutter of a secondhand store, he begged his mother to buy it. "I was fascinated with the possibility of producing something in that horn," Sabre says. He says he also felt a higher power emanating from the battered instrument.
Sax in hand, Sabre's universe unfolded. He began to listen to jazz, and his high school music teacher, Thomas Gryce, brother of saxophonist Gigi Gryce, picked up on his student's raw talent. really pushed me," Sabre says. "You don't realize your own potential. It takes a teacher to see that."
Now, it is not uncommon for Sabre to practice four to six hours a night. He considers it his sacred responsibility to perpetuate the musical form honed to uncommon beauty by his musical forefathers.
"African Americans as a race of people have been stripped o their culture, their original language, any kind of instrument, any kind of traditions, customs that were held in Africa," Sabre says. "With the emergence of jazz as an indigenous art form, we have something to offer the world. To dilute that would be to contribute to the continuing, present raping of the culture."
In college, Sabre studied classical saxophone, and wondered, "Why the hell am I studying Debussy?" He agitated for more jazz training, but found it mainly in the night clubs that dotted Baltimore: The Bird Cage and the Jazz Closet (both now closed), the New Haven Lounge, the Sportsmen's Lounge, where musicians, legend among jazz aficionados, were to be heard for a small cover charge.
Sabre remembers early on, an evening at the Bird Cage with tenor saxophonist Mickey Fields. "I was petrified. He's such a beautiful individual," he says. You got your horn, Fields asked Sabre. "I went up and played. I was thoroughly embarrassed. I wanted to throw my horn away," Sabre says. It was back to "the woodshed" for the young student. "I knew I had to be a little more serious," Sabre says.
The process of learning to play jazz is akin to African tribal rites, Sabre says. "You have to earn the respect of your peers and of the listeners. You have to go out to jam sessions, listen to the great ones, and get your feet wet. I can't tell you the number of times I have gone to clubs and was the youngest one there. It's a frightening, a proud feeling. You're getting that oral transmission that you wouldn't get at a Berklee or a Juilliard."
Five years after his appearance with Fields, Sabre dared to return to the stage. "Fields came up to me and said, 'I love you.' Oh well, damn all that hard work, it sort of paid off," Sabre realized.
In subsequent years, Sabre also won the city's 1987 Jazz Quest competition and opened at Pier Six Concert Pavilion for Bobby McFerrin. In his next appearance April 12, the Hassan Sabre Quartet, whose members vary, performs as part of a four-concert jazz series sponsored by the Walters Art Gallery in conjunction ,, with its African Improvisations textile exhibit.
On this particular Friday night, Sabre is backed by Cyru Chestnut on keyboard, Nate Reynolds on drums, Vaughn Bratcher on bass, as well as by vocalist Sheila Ford. Later, he is joined by tenor sax player Thomas "Whit" Williams Sr., one of the veterans whom Sabre learned to revere as a high school student.
The second set is capped by a sublime, improvisational duet featuring Sabre and Williams. Through the wonderful web they weave from Monk's classic, "Straight No Chaser," they speak to one another in a dense, melodic dialogue that could never be duplicated. The audience's appreciation is clear when the duo concludes.
"Those are the moments you live for, when you really touch someone," Sabre says later. "It was one of the best performances I've had since I've been in Baltimore. I would like to keep that group working."
It is not always easy to maintain the disciplined regimen, to resist the lure of popular music and the money it promises, to play alone in one's house night after night in a town where what remains of jazz life is a mere vestige of the lively past. "You have to believe in the music," Sabre says. "That's what all the great ones have told me."