Dalton Mumphrey was at a concert in Disney Hall when something clicked. The concert was a tribute to jazz legend Wayne Shorter, and among the special guests performing was five-time Grammy Award-winner Terence Blanchard. Mumphrey was studying with Blanchard at UCLA, but had yet to see him perform. That night, he saw Blanchard on one of Los Angeles’s biggest stages.
“Suddenly, I was able to hear every single lesson Terence had ever given. It was the most profound thing for me,” Mumphrey said. “It’s one thing to be taught performance technique and style in the classroom, and another thing entirely to see those lessons brought to life on stage. It all just clicked.”
Mumphrey is a junior at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. As a Global Jazz major, he spends most of his time doing coursework, playing in ensembles, and taking saxophone lessons. Learning from perennial Grammy Award-winning artists is part of what makes UCLA a destination music school, but that is only the beginning.
“Dalton is one of those rare students who doesn’t want information presented neatly to him,” said Arturo O’Farrill, the Grammy Award-winning jazz icon who has taught Mumphrey composition at UCLA. “Quite the opposite. He desires challenges and understands that the questions are more important than the answers.”
Mumphrey’s restlessness is notorious. He audited an ensemble class to learn more about composition. Curious about new perspectives on his instrument, he often sits in on the classical saxophone studio class headed by saxophone professor Jan Berry Baker.
“Dalton not only takes advantage of every opportunity, but he makes his own opportunities,” said Baker. “But what’s remarkable is that he does so not out of opportunism, but with his insatiable curiosity. His desire to learn and create art is genuine and honest.”
Mumphrey established a jazz ensemble (Earth Foundation) to perform for UCLA First Thursdays before a large crowd in the summer of 2022. They were so popular that they were invited back to perform two more times. He founded the jazz ensemble Continuance in Spring 2022. The ensemble immediately scored local gigs, including a Fowler Out Loud concert in October.
It is just a start for Mumphrey and his ensemble.
“We’ve put together a demo recording in the Evelyn & Mo Ostin Recording Studio,” said Mumphrey. The state-of-the-art recording studio is available free of charge to students in the School of Music, and Mumphrey is recording his own compositions for a solo release alongside the work he is doing with his ensemble. “Our goal is to start getting regular gigs outside of Westwood in 2023, and we felt we needed a demo to do that.”
Dalton’s passionate embrace of jazz came late in his life (relatively speaking). He was born and raised in Carson, neighboring Compton, CA. At the age of four his family moved to Murrieta. He didn’t grow up listening to jazz. His father introduced him to R&B, soul, and hip hop from his own youthful age, the 1970s and 80s. Mumphrey grew up listening to LPs of Kool & the Gang, The Gap Band, Parliament-Funkadelic, EPMD, and Luther Vandross, among others.
He only picked up an instrument after the Warm Springs School Middle School band did a runout to his elementary school. He went home to tell his parents that he liked the flute, which surprised them. For several years, he learned classical repertoire with the symphonic band.
How he came to play jazz was a little fortuitous.
“I was in the eighth grade, and my mom dropped me off at school an hour early,” Mumphrey recalled. “An hour is a long time when you are in eighth grade. There was nothing to do at the school. Nobody was there, it was cold outside. So, I went to the band room. There was a jazz band practicing there, and right when I opened the door, someone said, ‘We need a flute player.’ They looked up at me, and someone said, ‘Why not Dalton?’ So, I said yes.”
Dalton still plays jazz flute, and added jazz saxophone when he enrolled at Vista Murrieta High School. Once he arrived at UCLA, he discovered another passion: music composition. Initially introduced to the essentials of composition in Blanchard and O’Farrill’s classes, Mumphrey found his real passion for composition by performing what he learned and wrote first-hand.
“My first time actually performing my own composition happened while I was a member of the Gluck Jazz Ensemble,” said Mumphrey, who was a Gluck Fellow in 2021-22. “It was a transformative experience.”
It was also an instance of giving back. Mumphrey might never have picked up the flute or the saxophone if not for the impact of the runouts he heard by middle school and high school bands. The Gluck Fellows Program, established at UCLA in 1996 by a generous grant from the Max H. Gluck Foundation, provides funding for UCLA student ensembles to offer public educational concerts at over 150 schools, libraries, and senior centers around Los Angeles.
“I’ll never forget that performance,” said Mumphrey.
Likely there were more than a few elementary age students who won’t forget it either. And perhaps one will pick up the saxophone (or the flute, or another instrument) and change their life, too.