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Teacher and saxophonist David Larsen is driven to keep alive legacy of jazz great Gerry Mulligan

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 13, 2020

David Larsen sported an ear-to-ear grin when he jammed with the Gerry Mulligan All-Stars in January at Spokane Falls Community College. The baritone saxophonist, who teaches jazz and is the instrumental music director at Spokane Falls Community College, was living out a fantasy performing with grizzled but gifted musicians such as pianist Bill Mays, drummer Ron Vincent and bassist Dean Johnson.

“It was such a thrill playing with musicians who were right with you no matter where you went as you performed,” Larsen said while calling from his North Indian Trail home. “Playing with such amazing musicians was like playing with ESP. They knew where to go. We don’t normally get musicians playing in this area of that caliber. They’re amazing. The solos are better when you perform with such talented players. But look at who they played with for years, Gerry Mulligan, who was one of a kind.”

Jazz aficionados are well aware of the impact provided by the unparalleled talent of Mulligan. The dynamic soloist, who is arguably the greatest baritone saxophonist of all time, revolutionized the sound of the horn.

Mulligan, who died at age 68 in 1996, was part of the iconic Miles Davis’ band, which formed in 1948. Mulligan not only played with Davis during the uncompromising “Birth of the Cool” era, but the New York City native also wrote and arranged a number of acclaimed songs. Mulligan also was part of the acclaimed piano-less quartet with jazz giant Chet Baker, and he worked with legends such as Stan Getz and Charles Mingus.

However, Mulligan isn’t as well-known as some of the stars he at times outshined during his varied and enviable career.

Larsen, 39, who is working on his doctorate in music with a focus on the music of Mulligan at Washington State University, is driven to keep his legacy alive.

“Gerry Mulligan is a fascinating musical figure,” Larsen said. “When I was in college, my first serious sax teacher introduced me to a lot of cool jazz from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Gerry Mulligan was in that camp. When I was working on a doctoral degree looking for a topic of study, I thought of Mulligan, and I wanted to do the scholarly work on him.

“I learned that Gerry was arguably the most famous of all of the cool jazz artists, and he was perhaps the most influential. In 1959, Gerry was voted the third-most-influential jazz artist of all time over Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, according to Metronome magazine’s All-Time, All-Star Jazz Poll. And he was popular. At that time, he sold more albums than Miles Davis. He was such a talented musician and a writer who must be remembered.”

Jaunty compositions such as “Bark for Barksdale,” “Utter Chaos” and “Song for an Unfinished Woman” are some of the many noteworthy songs penned by the prolific Mulligan, who somehow fell between the cracks.

“There is this jazz giant out there we just don’t know enough about,” Larsen said. “I’ve interviewed many people and listened to everything he created. He was an avid composer who wrote hundreds of big-band charts. I fell down the rabbit hole, and I’m trying to spread the word about this really important person no one knows anything about except those in the world of jazz, and that world is shrinking.”

Larsen recorded an album with the Mulligan All-Stars while the act was at Spokane Falls Community College.

“We did a retrospective from his early period to the late period. We picked some of my favorites and what really represented his best work. Unfortunately due to COVID-19, things have slowed down the process,” Larsen said. “But the album will eventually be for commercial sale. Gerry Mulligan’s music is like the music of Beethoven. They each created masterpieces. I’m trying to spread the word through my own artistic endeavor.”

While finishing off his doctorate, the Hood River, Oregon, native, who has resided in Spokane for the last six years is writing a book about Mulligan.

“I don’t want what I know to be just shared at dinner parties,” Larsen said. “It’s important for people to know what Gerry Mulligan accomplished. I understand this music firsthand. I’ve interacted with the musicians who played with Gerry Mulligan. Fewer and fewer of these people are still alive. This is my footnote in musical history, but it’s not me. This is all about Gerry Mulligan’s music.”

Larsen hopes to bring the Mulligan All-Stars back to Spokane after the album is released.

“That would be great,” Larsen said. “Obviously, I would love to perform with them here again. The audience was so enthusiastic. Right now there’s obviously no plan for shows, but hopefully some time in the future I can perform with them again, and the album and the book will be out.

“I just would love to have as many people know about the work of Gerry Mulligan so hopefully people can enjoy his music as much as I do.”

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