Ulysses Kay, one of Arizona's finest


Ulysses Kay
Date: 
Sun, 1917-01-07

*Ulysses Kay was born on this date in 1917. He was an African American musician and composer.

From Tucson, Arizona he was the son of Elizabeth Davis Kay and Ulysses S. Kay, and he had one sister. He also was the nephew of the New Orleans jazz legend and cornet player, Joe "King" Oliver, who influenced him in his formative years. Kay's father was a barber who loved to sing. His mother, Elizabeth, played the piano. His father used to sing ballads, hymns, work songs, and songs he created to his son to keep him entertained. His sister played Chopin, on the piano in their home. His uncle, Joe determined that young Kay should study the piano which he did with William A. Ferguson. He learned to play the violin and the saxophone while he was a student at Dunbar Junior High School.

At Tucson Senior High School, he played in the marching band, sang in the glee club, and played saxophone in jazz orchestras. In 1938 he received his bachelor of music degree with training in public school music from the University of Arizona. There Kay encountered the music of pianist Bela Bartok as part of his piano study with Julia Rebeil, and he was schooled in music theory under John L. Lowell at the university. He later said that those experiences gave him a completely new perspective on the field of music composition. He received a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and earned a master's degree in 1940, studying composition with Bernard Rogers and then with Howard Hanson until 1941. One year later Kay enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves and served three and a half years as a musician second class in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. He played the flute, saxophone, and piccolo in the Navy band.

A significant work of Kay's from this period was the orchestral overture, Of New Horizons in 1944. Kay's Suite for Orchestra in 1945 received a prize from BMI. The following year, A Short Overture earned the George Gershwin Memorial Award. Kay received the first of many awards designed to give him more time to compose in 1946 and composed Suite, for strings, in 1947. The Alice M. Ditson Fellowship supported him during that time and BMI elected him to full membership. That same year he received the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and a grant traveled to Europe and composed Portrait Suite. From 1946 through 1949, he attended Columbia University and completed a movie score for the motion picture, The Quiet One and his Concerto for Orchestra was completed in 1948. On August 20, 1949, he married Barbara Harrison. They had three children are Melinda Lillian, Virginia, and Hillary.

From that point until 1952 he lived in Italy, while there he wrote Symphony in E, his first major symphonic work. A consulting position with BMI lasted from 1953 until 1968. During that time he completed his composition Three Pieces After Blake, Six Dances for string orchestra and Serenade for full orchestra followed (1954) and a second one-act opera, Juggler of Our Lady, in 1956. In 1958 Kay went to the Soviet Union on a cultural exchange program with the first delegation of American composers. He ended the decade of the 1950s with a large piece for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra, called Phoebus, Arise. Kay's first major work of the 1960s was Choral Triptych, for chorus and string orchestra in 1962. In 1963 he wrote "tranquil music,” Fantasy Variations, for orchestra, and Inscriptions from Whitman, for chorus and orchestra. Lincoln College in Lincoln, Illinois, presented him with an honorary doctorate in music in 1963, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964--65, while he composed Emily Dickinson Set for women's chorus and piano.

He wrote the film scores for two television documentaries for The Twentieth Century series on CBS, "F.D.R.: Third Term to Pearl Harbor," and "Submarine!," and another documentary called New York: City of Magic. In 1965 Kay was a visiting professor at Boston University. One year later, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, awarded him his second honorary doctorate in music. In 1966--67 he was a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. He wrote Markings in 1966, an essay for orchestra that took its title from Dag Hammarskjold's book, published posthumously. Kay received a permanent appointment to the faculty of the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York in 1968. That year, the Atlanta Symphony commissioned him to write a piece for them. Theater Set premiered on September 26, 1968.

In 1969 the University of Arizona at Tucson, conferred on him an honorary doctorate in music and he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Illinois Wesleyan University. In 1970 he composed a sextet for woodwinds and piano called Facets. In 1972 he was named Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, where he had been teaching since 1968. Commissions for new works continued to pour in. The Juilliard School of Music commissioned Quintet Concerto in 1973 for five brass soloists and orchestra. For the American bicentennial he wrote four works. Western Paradise, for narrator and orchestra (1975), Southern Harmony on February 10, 1976, Epigrams and Hymn, also in 1976, and Jubilee, based on Margaret Walker's book of the same title on November 20, 1976.

Kay's last major work was an opera titled Frederick Douglass, which he completed in 1991. "I have nothing especially other than its expressive content." He often wrote in a neoclassical style with modern harmonies, like Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Kabalevsky who worked in the Soviet Union, but he could just as easily write in an atonal idiom. Kay's mature style, according to Eileen Southern in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, "is characterized by taut but warm melodies, complex polyphony, vibrant harmonic and orchestral coloring, and rhythmic diversity." Kay benefited from the multitude of achievements of William Grant Still. With more formal education, Kay was able to open doors in the academic world that his predecessor could not.

When still died in 1978, he became the bridge between the self-taught African American composer of European styles and an academic community in the United States. Ulysses S. Kay was one of the most outstanding composers of twentieth-century classical idioms. He died on May 20, 1995, at home in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Reference:
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, London:
Wiley H. Hitchcock and Sadie Stanley
Macmillan, 1986.

Who's Who Among African Americans, 1996/1997
9th ed. Detroit:
Gale Research, 1996.

Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians,
7th ed., Nicolas Slonimsky,
New York: Schirmer Books, 1984.

To Become a Conductor or Composer

Person / name: 

Kay, Ulysses

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