Catching Up With Jovan Quallo

Saxophonist Jovan Quallo is a busy man.With a full schedule of recording and touring with top pop and country artists, a large group of private saxophone students and, oh yeah, being one of the most in-demand jazz players around, Jovan is an exemplar of the new breed of Nashville Jazz Artists who are doing it all and doing it at a high level.

So, NJW is fortunate to be able to book Jovan for a concert Saturday, July 8. This is his second time at NJW as a leader – the first was a sold-out affair in 2019. NJW’s Larry Seeman caught up with Jovan recently at his home studio to talk about his career, his musical development, and what he’s planning for the July concert.

NJW: I understand that you’re originally from Boston. What brought you to Tennessee?

JQ: I grew up in the Boston area. My parents had split and my mother had ended up meeting a guy online who lived in LaVergne. They ended up getting married and moved my brother and me from Boston down to Goodlettsville, Tennessee. So when I was 13, I moved to Goodlettsville, went through the high school system in that area –Beech high school in Hendersonville –and then went off to college to MTSU and did music education. And so, yeah, I kind of ended up in Tennessee totally by chance as a 13 year old kid.

NJW: So you didn’t move to Nashville for the music? <laugh>

JQ: Definitely not. I had no say in the matter. <laugh>

NJW: What was your musical background before you hit MTSU?

JQ: Piano is actually my first instrument. I started playing piano when I was about seven. And my parents’ condition was to take piano for a year and if you love it, you can keep doing piano lessons. If you don’t like it, then you get to pick another instrument – not do athletics or do another hobby, but pick another instrument. They really wanted me to do music because neither of them really had a musical background, so they wanted me to have that. So I ended up switching to saxophone at age eight up in Boston.

They start band a little earlier than they do here in the south. I think they start in fourth grade up there. So I was in like fourth grade band. I was self-taught pretty much all up until about college. I got to MTSU and studied with Don Aliquo. So a lot of it was just figuring stuff out from my peers and band class and, you know, checking out different records and all the self-teaching stuff, you know, before YouTube self-teaching stuff. <laugh>.

NJW: What was it like working with Don?

JQ: It was great. When I first met him, he was a little gruff, and I was a little intimidated, which was something I hadn’t really experienced before, like, intimidation by someone just because of their prowess. And so that kind of drew me to wanna study with him. He’s a great person who teaches by example. You can do everything he says, of course, but even if that goes in one ear and out the other, if you just observe what he does as a daily practice as a musician, [then it’s] like, “okay, that’s what I need to be doing.”

You know, he’s up there 7:30 in, in the morning in his office every day shedding, you hear fragments of an idea, and by lunchtime you hear that idea 60 clicks faster in all 12 keys. He’s just a super dedicated practicer and, and never lets up on stuff. So I, I learned a lot through example and observation through him.

NJW: Even now when he comes to the workshop, you’ll hear him in the green room before a gig doing just that <laugh>.

JQ: Yeah. Oh yeah. Probably working something out that he started that morning, and by the end of the day, he’s got it, man. It’s wild! One thing I liked about Don too is he wasn’t very strict in the way, where it had to be, like his way or the highway. He was very much like, “I’m a guide to show you how to go about doing what it is that you want to do,” as opposed to, “I do it this way, so therefore you must do it this way.” And I really appreciate that about his teaching. I had a bit of a, I think a rebellious streak to authority during that time in my life. So I think if he had approached me that way, I don’t think I would’ve been very receptive to it. So it was nice that he was kind of like, “if you wanna do this, here’s how you might consider doing it,” as opposed to, “you gotta do this.”

NJW: So was Jazz your first love or did you come to it later?

JQ: I came to it in a roundabout way. When I was younger, being from Boston,  hip hop culture was pretty prevalent, especially in my social circle at the time. So in the mid to late nineties I listened to a lot of East Coast hip hop. They were sampling a lot of jazz records. Like, you listen to stuff from Jurassic Five, Dilated Pupils, Talib Kweli. You listen carefully and you’re like, “oh, wait, that’s, that’s an Ahmad Jamal sample,” or, “that’s a, George Benson, that’s from a George Benson solo that they’ve looped.

So I kind of heard the fragments of it. And then, um, my godfather had just, he had heard that I was kind of listening to this kind of music. He goes, well, this is where some of that kind of came from. And he gave me a John Coltrane record and gave me a Charlie Parker record, and then Kirk Whalum, and then David Sanborn. And, and so that’s kind of how I stumbled into Jazz was kind of through nineties hip hop <laugh>. Kinda a weird roundabout way,

NJW: When you were in school at MTSU did you have a thought about what you’d be doing in 10 years?

JQ: Yes. And it was not this <laugh> not even close to this. So I had kind of decided pretty early on, I was not going to be a performer; that if I was to make a living doing music, it would not be playing. It would be teaching. I just simply think I didn’t think I was good enough. And you know, in that age, in high school, your teachers and probably even your parents are kind of discouraging. Oh, you know, being a musician is really hard. Like, I don’t know if you can make a living doing that. And so that got really in my head. So I was just gonna do music ed and be a band director.

In college when I started, I’m thinking, all right, I’m gonna have a band directing job for a number of years. I’m gonna go back and get my masters in conducting — what I wanted to do is be a conductor. And then I was gonna go and maybe do a doctoral degree in, maybe ethnomusicology and be a college professor somewhere, be like a director of band somewhere. And yeah, none of that happened. <laugh>

NJW: What changed course? What happened?

JQ: I think it was a natural progression of my abilities of a player growing, and the university’s need at that time for a player at my current level. When I started at MTSU — you’re familiar with Cord Martin? He was three years older than me, so he was kinda like the top dog saxophone student. He was doing all the ensembles. He was doing salsa band and sax quartet and big band and jazz combo, and doing all the things.

He was not a jazz major. He’s like me, music ed. When he graduated, there was a slot to be filled. And so I ended up performing a ton, and I was in probably six ensembles a semester. You’re only technically supposed to do three maximum.

So I was kind of like doubling my ensemble load. And during that time playing so much, I got randomly offered a cruise ship gig during one summer in college. And I did that and had a blast, and I was like, oh, you can make some money just playing saxophone. And I got to travel the world at the same time in my twenties, and this is wonderful. So, I kind of did that for a while. Every summer I would take my finals a week early and peace out, be gone for three months.

I would come back a week late to school, I’d play catch up, and then I’d do the same thing for Christmas. I’d take my finals a week early, I’d leave for all the Christmas break, come back a week late, catch up on my classes. I repeated this for like two or three years till I graduated. Getting a taste of that, you know, this is what a professional musician could make, playing and traveling at the same time, I kind of wanted to explore other possibilities. Maybe teaching isn’t the only thing I can do with music. Maybe there are other avenues available to me.

NJW: And as I understand it, you’re still doing quite a bit of playing non-jazz, playing with some pretty prominent artists.

JQ: From time to time, yeah. <laugh> I mean, realistically, unless you’re the top 1% of jazz artists, it is difficult to make a full-time living just playing jazz. So it’s still a very intrinsically gratifying outlet for me to still get to play, especially when it’s my original music, which I do very seldom. So, I’m, I’m excited to be playing some of my original tunes on this next gig. But, yeah, I mean, I got to play . . .  Bonnaroo last week with Tyler Childers.

I played with Keith Urban the week before that at CMA Fest at Nissan Stadium. I’ve gotten to record with some really cool artists, Dionne Warwick and Trisha Yearwood and Johnny Mathis. And did some touring with Robben Ford, legendary jazz blues guitarist. So yeah, it’s been a very colorful and diverse career in Nashville, which is kind of the beauty of being here. There’s so many different things to stumble into. It’s been nice, getting to have a diverse palette of genres to play, for sure.

NJW: I’m gonna put you on the spot. Do you think you would have had all those gigs if you hadn’t  been a jazz player originally?

JQ: You know, I don’t know that I would have, honestly. I think that, whereas my background is definitely a music education classical-centric degree program, Don Aliquo was kind of like, “eat your vegetables, you get your dessert. Let me hear your crest and sound really good, [then] let’s talk about minor <inaudible>.” You know, so I was getting to do a bit of both, but I mean, just having an understanding of harmony and just being steeped in improvisational music, I think definitely worked to my advantage in the pop and commercial music context in terms of how to navigate harmony in general. And then how to play melodically and how to play tastefully too. So, yeah, I do definitely think it worked to my benefit. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten all those opportunities had I not had that background.

NJW: How would you describe the jazz scene here? Is there a jazz scene?

JQ: I’d say there’s a scene. I would say it is small but mighty. And I would say it is ever evolving and changing. You have the guys that have been here for years, Don of course, Dennis Solee, George Tidwell, people that were of Duffy’s generation and Billy Adair’s generation who I think, paved the way for a lot of the younger players, my generation and younger. There’s not like a ton of players, but the players that you hear about doing it are doing it at a really high level.

And I feel like since COVID especially, there’s been an influx of new younger musicians, and they’re like mid and early twenties that are killing players like Alex Murphy and Madison George, Liz Kelly. Like, there’s a lot of really blossoming young talent in Nashville in the jazz scene, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they lead the, the direction of the genre in Nashville.

NJW: I have the impression that you get to play various jazz gigs as a sideman, and then occasionally as a leader, which you’re doing at the Jazz Workshop July 8th. How are those different for you? Or is that a different experience?

JQ: Yeah, it’s a very different headspace. I mean, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t really enjoy being in the spotlight. There’s a sense of anxiety that I get being a leader in that way. I would much rather be a collaborator, be a supporter of someone else’s thing than do my own thing. Where that stems from, I’m not sure. It might be like a touch of imposter syndrome, maybe. Like, who wants to hear my music? No one’s to hear my music, I’d, I’d rather play someone else’s music, you know, <laugh>.

But, but yeah, I feel like when you’re being a sideman, there’s a lot less pressure. Like, if the thing as a whole flops, it’s not necessarily on you, especially if you’re not in a composer setting for those types of gigs. You’re like, well, it may be my performance, or it might just be the tune itself just wasn’t happening, you know what I mean? But as a leader of the group, it’s like, you can execute the thing perfectly, but the thing just may not be happening.

So yeah, I definitely get way more in my head when I’m doing my own thing as a leader versus a sideman. There’s a lot of joy and kind of a freedom of responsibility in a way when you’re a sideman that you’re not necessarily absolved from as a leader. <laugh>.

NJW: I’ve gotta tell you an anecdote. Years ago at one of the Jamey Aebersold workshops, the guitar teacher there, Steve Erquiaga, was doing a faculty concert. It was kind of a contemporary thing with a lot of electronic effects, and I thought it sounded great. And I went up to him afterwards and he pulled a face and said, “I had two pedals and one of my pedals wasn’t working. It was horrible.” But the audience loved it, you know? Some of that anxiety is self-imposed because you know what you’re intending to do [and they don’t].

JQ: Definitely, yeah. Like having the vision of the thing in your head and being married to what that is. And anything that comes out contrary to that, it’s immediate failure in the mind of the player. But yeah, the audience could be loving it.

NJW: I’ve read stories of Oscar Peterson coming off a gig and saying that he played terribly.  You know, if you can imagine that!

JQ: Man, it’s so easy to fall on that. I’ve been trying really hard to just let go of that. Like, my opinion of the thing, immediately after a gig doesn’t matter, at least right now. Right now it’s about the listener and if they loved it. Or you can say the mission failed successfully, perhaps. But yeah, I’m trying to not reflect so quickly after performing. It’s tricky though, as I’m sure you’re aware.

NJW: Do you have any special plans for the July 8th gig? What do you have in store for us?

JQ: We’re still sussing it out. It’s gonna be primarily, some original tunes.  I actually had started recording an album. It will not be completed by July 8th, but we’re gonna be playing some of those tunes that I’ve recorded and some new ones I’ve written since. We’re probably gonna have a couple of arrangements of American songbook standards, just kind of modern takes on tunes of people might recognize bits and pieces of. The band — Josh Hunt on drums, Jonathan Wires on bass, Jonathan Rogerson on guitar, and David Rodgers on Keys — all those guys are great composers and artists in their own right. So I’m hoping to also feature some original compositions from other members of the band.

NJW: [Speaking of Jonathan Rogerson] I can’t help noticing that both of your times as a leader at the Jazz workshop, your band has a guitar player. What’s up with that?

JQ: Yeah, so, that’s always the, the sound I hear in my head when I’m writing music.There’s an alto player by the name of Will Vinson who’s based in New York, and his band usually includes a guitar player named Jonathan Kriesberg. Who’s also an amazing, amazing composer. And I’ve listened to a lot of their stuff, and I’ve listened to a lot of Gila Hekselman. A lot of times he’s in a quintet setting with maybe like Tivon Pennicott and Ari Honig’s band, and just like the sound of sax and guitar together, I just really love . . . I kind of treat guitar more as like a horn player. And in fact, on the record, there’s a couple of tunes I have where I’ve arranged for sextet, where I’ve got trumpet alto, and then guitar is kind of filling more of a trombone function in the horn section. It just a really unique color, it’s super versatile. I just love the possibilities that a guitar adds.

I really love guitar in jazz. Yeah, I think I’ll probably always play with a guitar player. I would almost, if the budget came down to piano or guitar, I’d probably pick guitar <laugh>.

I think it’s underutilized, you know, there are so many possibilities. It’s crazy.

Check out the video below for a sample of Jovan’s music, from his 2019 Jazz Cave concert. The band for that appearance included James DaSilva (guitar), Ian Miller (piano), Jonathan Wires (bass), and Marcus Finnie (drums).