Kay, Ulysses 1917–1995

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ulysses Kay 19171995

Classical composer

At a Glance

Selected works


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 wasnt 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 Kays 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 Kays work and encouraged his compositional efforts.

The subtle rhythms and brilliant orchestrations of Bartóks music would leave their mark on Kays 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. Eastmans graduate

At a Glance

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, masters 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 teacherthe 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 Kays 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 Kays 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 Kays 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 Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, noted that Kay avoided what Slonimsky called ostentatious ethnic elements.

In fact, though, two of the major works of Kays 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 Walkers novel of the same title, set in the time of slavery and its aftermath, and Kays 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 Parkinsons 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.

Selected works

Suite for Orchestra, 1945.

Concerto for Orchestra, 1948.

Choral Triptych, 1962.

Emily Dickinson Set, for womens chorus and piano, 1964-65.

Western Paradise, for narator and orchestra, 1975.

Jubilee, opera, 1976.

Frederick Douglass, opera, 1991.



Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. emeritus, Bakers 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

Kay, Ulysses Simpson

views updated May 17 2018

Kay, Ulysses Simpson

(b. 7 January 1917 in Tucson, Arizona; d. 20 May 1995 in Englewood, New Jersey), classically trained composer and professor who was among the first black American musicians to write music independent of folk traditions.

From an early age, Kay determined to be an accomplished musician, with encouragement from musically inclined relatives including his father, Ulysses S. Kay, a barber who sang in the family home, and his mother, Elizabeth Davis Kay, who sang at church and played piano. Especially influential was his uncle, the legendary cornetist and leader of the Creole Jazz Band, Joseph “King” Oliver, who urged his nephew to study piano. Kay took piano lessons from the age of six through his college years. In his youth he also studied the violin, saxophone, and flute, performing in school ensembles and in a navy band during World War II. But well into adulthood he did not consider himself “a player.”

At age seventeen he entered the University of Arizona, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1938. As an undergraduate he met the eminent composer William Grant Still, probably best known for his Afro-American Symphony. The Mississippi-born Still encouraged Kay’s composition efforts, and the younger musician considered Still a major influence on his career. Kay received a master’s degree in 1940 from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he studied composition with Bernard Rogers, another career influence, and with Howard Hanson. Kay continued study with Paul Hindemith at the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood in Massachusetts and at Yale University (1941–1943). After his military service, Kay studied with Otto Luening at Columbia University (1946–1949). On 20 August 1949 Kay married Barbara Harrison, a teacher; they had three daughters.

Kay’s work and residence overseas included three years in Italy (1949–1952), made possible by two Prix de Rome awards and a Fulbright scholarship. In 1958 he took part in a cultural exchange with the Soviet Union through the U.S. State Department. A music professor for more than twenty years, Kay taught at Boston University in 1965 and at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1966–1967. In 1968 he joined the faculty of the City University of New York’s Herbert H. Lehman College, where he remained until retiring in 1988. For years Kay was also an editorial consultant for Broadcast Music, Inc.

Kay wrote more than 140 compositions scored primarily for orchestra, chorus, chamber groups, voice, and keyboard instruments. While some black American composers routinely incorporated spirituals, work songs, or other elements of black folk traditions into classical structures, Kay preferred not to follow suit. Comparatively few of his pieces draw attention to black traditions, among them Lift Every Voice and Sing (1952), scored for a big band—style orchestra and named for a hymn often called the black national anthem; Fugitive Songs (1950), an unpublished song group; and the opera Frederick Douglass (1985), created with librettist Donald Dorr. In both scholarly interviews and the public press, Kay has been quoted as saying he saw “nothing especially black” about his music, “other than its expressive content.”

Nor could Kay’s compositional career be considered terribly nationalistic, because he did not often incorporate American folk tunes or patriotic themes into his works, although he did write some music for the Bicentennial celebration of 1976. Still, some observers have detected a subtle American flavor in his Serenade for Orchestra (1954) and Umbrian Scene (1963), due to their “optimistic character” and “unconstrained color and melody.” Kay also wrote pieces inspired by monumental American historical figures, among them presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy and the explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd.

Kay’s choral and orchestral music was often inspired by literary or historical figures. One piece he mentioned as being personally significant to him was the 1966 symphonic essay Markings, inspired by writings of the United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold. Premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and performed by the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, Markings stood out to Kay because it is “big in scope as well as in expression” and “quite personal in terms of how it’s worked out.” The International Dictionary of Black Composers calls Markings prototypical of Kay’s chromaticism, lyrical melodies, and potential for great tension.

In middle age Kay increasingly read poetry for inspiration for vocal and choral music. Text-based compositions include Three Pieces After Blake (1952) for soprano and orchestra, Inscriptions from Whitman (1963) for chorus and orchestra, Emily Dickinson Set (1964) for women’s chorus, and Stephen Crane Set (1967) for chorus and orchestra. Other major orchestral works include Of New Horizons: Overture (1944), which was an early success premiered by the New York Philharmonic; Concerto for Orchestra (1948); Theater Set (1968), which was commissioned for the Atlanta Symphony; and Southern Harmony: Four Aspects for Orchestra (1975), inspired by nineteenth-century hymns.

Slightly built with glasses, close-cropped hair, and a receding hairline in later years, Kay and his wife lived for more than three decades in suburban Teaneck, New Jersey. He died in Englewood Hospital after a lengthy illness. The family attributed the cause to Parkinson’s disease.

Historians who classify Kay’s music sometimes head in decidedly different directions. Observations often depend on various periods in Kay’s music. Hildred Roach, who wrote two volumes of profiles of black composers, sees “neo-baroque” structure and counterpoint in some of Kay’s early works. Pieces from the 1940s and 1950s seem “neoclassical” to Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. Atonality in Kay’s late works has been described both by Roach and by Kyle Gann of the Village Voice. Perhaps the former Harvard University professor Eileen Southern’s description of Kay’s “contemporary traditionalism,” “neoromantic roots,” and “crisp, dissonant” technique comes closest to the composer’s intentions.

The music historian Nicolas Slonimsky’s extensive detailing of Kay’s life and work in his 1997 edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians builds on material Slonimsky published forty years earlier in American Composers Alliance (ACA) Bulletin. Hildred Roach chronicled Kay’s work and analyzed his music in her first volume of Black American Music: Past and Present (1973), then credited the composer for research for the second volume (1985). The Black Composer Speaks (1978), edited by the jazz composer David N. Baker and others for Indiana University’s Afro-American Arts Institute, contains extensive commentary and analysis from Kay himself. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Bergen (New Jersey) Record (both 23 May 1995) and the Washington Post (28 May 1995).

Whitney Smith

Kay, Ulysses Simpson

views updated May 29 2018

Kay, Ulysses Simpson

Kay, Ulysses Simpson, eminent black American composer and teacher; b. Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 7, 1917; d. Englewood, N.J., May 20, 1995. He received his early music training at home, and on the advice of his uncle “King” Oliver, a leading jazz cornetist and bandleader, he studied piano. In 1934 he enrolled at the Univ. of Ariz, at Tucson (Mus.B., 1938), and then went to study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where he was a student of Rogers and Hanson (M.M., 1940). Still later he attended the classes of Hindemith at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood (1941–42). After serving in the U.S. Navy (1942–45), he studied composition with Luening at Columbia Univ. (1946–49). He went to Rome as winner of the American Rome Prize, and was attached there to the American Academy (1949–52). From 1953 to 1968 he was employed as a consultant by Broadcast Music Inc. in N.Y. He was on the faculty of Boston Univ. (1965) and of the Univ. of Calif., Los Angeles (1966–67), and, in 1968, he was appointed prof, of music at the Herbert H. Lehman Coll. in N.Y; was made Distinguished Prof, there in 1972, retiring in 1988. He received honorary doctorates from several American univs. His music followed a distinctly American idiom, particularly in its rhythmic intensity, while avoiding ostentatious ethnic elements; in harmony and counterpoint, he pursued a moderately advanced idiom, marked by prudentially euphonious dissonances; his instrumentation was masterly.


dramatic operaThe Boor, after Chek hov (1955; Lexington, Ky., April 3, 1968); The Juggler of Our Lady (1956; New Orleans, Feb. 3, 1962); The Capitoline Venus (1970; Urbana, 111., March 12, 1971); Jubilee (Jackson, Miss., April 12, 1976); Frederick Douglass (1980-85; Newark, April 14, 1991). Ballet: Dance Calinda (Rochester, N.Y., April 23, 1941). Film: The Quiet One (1988). orch.: Oboe Concerto (Rochester, N.Y., April 16, 1940); 5 Mosaics for Chamber Orch. (Cleveland, Dec. 28, 1940); Of New Horizons, overture (N.Y., July 29, 1944); Suite in 5 Movements (1945; N.Y., May 21, 1950); A Short Overture (N.Y., March 31, 1947); Portrait Suite (1948; Erie, Pa., April 21, 1964); Suite for Strings (Baltimore, April 8, 1949); Sinfonia in E major (Rochester, N.Y., May 2, 1951); 6 Dances for Strings (1954); Concerto for Orchestra (N.Y., Feb. 1954); Serenade (Louisville, Sept. 18, 1954); Fantasy Variations (Portland, Maine, Nov. 19, 1963); Umbrian Scene (New Orleans, March 31, 1964); Markings, symphonic essay, dedicated to the memory of Dag Hammarskjöld (Rochester, Mich., Aug. 8, 1966); Sym. (1967; for the 111. Sesquicentennial, Macomb, 111., March 28, 1968); Theater Set (Atlanta, Sept. 26, 1968); Scherzi musicali for Chamber Orch. (Detroit, Feb. 13, 1969); Aulos for Flute and Chamber Orch. (Bloomington, Ind., Feb. 21, 1971); Quintet Concerto for 5 Brass Soloists and Orch. (N.Y., March 14, 1975); Southern Harmony (Raleigh, N.C., Feb. 10, 1976); Chariots, rhapsody (Saratoga, N.Y., Aug. 8, 1979, composer conducting); String Triptych (1987); band music. chamber: Quintet for Flute and Strings (1947); Piano Quintet (1949); 3 string quartets (1953, 1956, 1961); 5 Portraits for Violin and Piano (1972); Guitarra, guitar suite (1973; rev. 1985); Tromba for Trumpet and Piano (1983); 5 Winds, divertimento for Woodwind Quintet (1984); Pantomime, fantasy for Clarinet (1986); Everett Suite for Bass Trombone (1988). Piano: Sonata (1940); 2 Nocturnes (1973); 2 Impromptus (1986). vocal:Song of Jeremiah, cantata (Nashville, Tenn., April 23, 1954); 3 Pieces after Blake for Soprano and Orch. (N.Y., March 27, 1955); The Western Paradise for Female Narrator and Orch. (Washington, D.C., Oct. 12, 1976); many choral pieces; songs.


L. Hayes, The Music ofU. K., 1939-1963 (diss., Univ. of Wise, 1971); R. Hadley, The Published Choral Music of U.S. K., 1943-1968 (diss., Univ. of Iowa, 1972); C. Hobson and D. Richardson, U. K.: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1994).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Kay, Ulysses Simpson

views updated May 21 2018

Kay, Ulysses Simpson (b Tucson, Arizona, 1917). Amer. composer. Won Prix de Rome and worked in It. 1949–52. Worked for Broadcast Music Inc., NY, 1953–68. Prof. of mus., Lehman Coll. of City Univ., NY, 1968–88. Works incl. 5 operas; sym.; ob. conc.; Concerto for Orchestra; Suite for orch.; ballet Dance Calinda; cantata Song of Jeremiah; 3 str. qts.; pf. sonata; fl. quintet, etc.