Kay, Ulysses 1917–1995
Ulysses Kay 1917–1995
One of the few African Americans to have enjoyed a successful career in the rather closed-in world of academic musical composition, Ulysses Kay wrote over 135 pieces in genres ranging from solo piano works to full-length opera. Kay was notable for his attitude toward the use of black idioms such as jazz and the spiritual in a classical context: he used such styles when he felt them to be appropriate, but was not particularly identified with the strong African-American influences heard in the music of composers such as William Grant Still and George Gershwin. After composing his opera Frederick Douglass (1991), Kay explained (according to the Washington Post ) that “I wasn’t composing operas to prove anything. I write out of interest, rather than trying to take on the cause of blackness or whatever.
Ulysses Simpson Kay was born in Tucson, Arizona, on January 7, 1917. His family was especially musical even compared with the often music-friendly environments in which other famous musicians grew up: his mother and sister played the piano, and his father was a barber who occasionally made up original songs to entertain his family. Most important of all was Kay’s uncle, the famed New Orleans cornetist and jazz bandleader Joe “King” Oliver. Despite his own band-instrument background, Oliver steered Kay toward formal piano lessons when he started to show an interest in music.
Kay did take up the saxophone later, playing in the school marching band at Tucson Senior High School and sometimes joining jazz ensembles on the side. A small Western college town, Tucson was relatively free of the strict educational segregation imposed in the southeastern states; Kay was able to enroll at the University of Arizona in 1934, and his classical background was helpful as he completed courses for a public school music major. It was at Arizona that Kay first studied music theory and composition, and he was especially impressed by the music of the modern Hungarian compoer Bela Bartók. The so-called “dean of African-American composers,” William Grant Still, heard of Kay’s work and encouraged his compositional efforts.
The subtle rhythms and brilliant orchestrations of Bartók’s music would leave their mark on Kay’s own compositions, but a new set of influences was added after Kay won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Eastman’s graduate
Born on January 7, 1917, in Tucson, AZ; died on May 20, 1995, in Teaneck, NJ; son of a barber; married; children: Virginia, Melinda, and Hillary. Education: University of Arizona, bachelor of music, 1938; Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY, master’s degree, 1940; further composition studies with Paul Hindemith, 1941-42; Otto Luening, 1946-49. Military service: Served as Musician Second Class in U.S. Naval Reserves, 1942-45.
Career: Lived in Rome while studying and composing at American Academy, 1949-52; consultant, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), 1953-68; traveled to Soviet Union on U.S. State Department tour, 1958; Boston University, visiting professor, 1965; University of California at Los Angeles, visiting professor, 1966-67; Lehman College, City University of New York, professor, 1968-88; named Distinguished Professor, 1972.
Selected memberships: Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Selected awards: Prix de Rome, 1949; Fulbright Foundation grant, 1950; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1964; resident fellowship, Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Como, Italy, 1982.
program had shaped the careers of several of the leading American composers of the day, and Kay studied with the crowd-pleasing symphonic composer Howard Hanson. One piece performed while he was at Eastman, the Danse calinda, was inspired by the African-flavored dances that survived in New Orleans through the era of slavery, but in most of his other works Kay followed the cool, balanced “Neo-Classical” style of another important teacher—the transplanted German Paul Hindemith, with whom Kay worked for two summers at the Tanglewood music festival in Massachusetts.
Kay was able to continue composing during a three-and-a-half-year stint in the U.S. Navy Reserves during World War II. Toward the end of the war his compositions began to gain mainstream performances and critical praise. The New York Philharmonic performed his Of New Horizons at an outdoor concert in 1944. His Suite for Orchestra of 1945 won a prize from the young BMI music-licensing organization, and two years later Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of Kay’s Short Overture. By that time Kay had enrolled at Columbia University for further study. He spent a year in Europe on a scholarship in 1947 and 1948.
After his return Kay celebrated two happy events: he married his wife Barbara in 1949 (the couple raised three daughters), and that year he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, enabling him to live in Italy and study for three years. Kay wrote several large orchestral pieces while he was there, and his Concerto for Orchestra was performed by an orchestra in Venice. He also won a Fulbright Scholarship in 1950. Despite these sterling credentials, however, Kay only found work outside of academia when he finally came back to the United States; he was employed for 15 years as a consultant for BMI.
Kay wrote two short operas in the mid-1950s, and in 1958 he joined three other leading composers on a U.S. State Department-sponsored cultural exchange tour of the Soviet Union. The Choral Triptych of 1962 remains one of Kay’s most widely performed pieces. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Kay wrote the score for a televised Kennedy tribute, An Essay on Death. In the mid-1960s he took visiting professorships at Boston University, Bucknell University, and the University of California at Los Angeles, and in 1968 he won a permanent appointment at Lehman College, a unit of the City University of New York.
Prestigious commissions, including one from Washington, D.C.’s National Symphony (Western Paradise, for narrator and orchestra, 1975), flowed Kay’s way in the 1970s. By that time Kay had forged his mature style, which, according to New Grove Dictionary of American Music contributor Eileen Southern, “is characterized by taut but warm melodies, complex polyphony, vibrant harmonic and orchestral coloring, and rhythmic diversity.” Nicolas Slonimsky, writing in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, noted that Kay avoided what Slonimsky called “ostentatious ethnic elements.”
In fact, though, two of the major works of Kay’s later career took up African-American themes and necessarily incorporated spirituals and other examples of black music. Both of these were operas: Jubilee (1976, commissioned by Opera/South of Jackson, Mississippi) was based on Margaret Walker’s novel of the same title, set in the time of slavery and its aftermath, and Kay’s final major work, Frederick Douglass (1991), a musical biography of the abolitionist writer and ex-slave. After receiving numerous honorary doctorates and other academic honors, Kay retired from his Lehman College position in 1988.
Kay died at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease on May 20, 1995. He had done much to inspire a younger generation of African-American classical composers and undeniably blazed trails for them in the academic world, through whose doors almost no African-American composers had passed before. But several of his obituaries noted the contrast between the nearly universal praise his music had received and its relative obscurity. “He was as talented a musician as a Bernstein or a Copland,” musical scholar Hildred Roach told the Washington Post. But, said Roach, “he never got the publicity.”
Suite for Orchestra, 1945.
Concerto for Orchestra, 1948.
Choral Triptych, 1962.
Emily Dickinson Set, for women’s chorus and piano, 1964-65.
Western Paradise, for narator and orchestra, 1975.
Jubilee, opera, 1976.
Frederick Douglass, opera, 1991.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, Norton, 1997.
The Guardian (London, England), June 6, 1995, p. 14.
New York Times, June 13, 1989, p. C22; May 24, 1995, p. D18.
Washington Post, May 28, 1995, p. G9.
—James M. Manheim
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Kay, Ulysses Simpson
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