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Ulysses Kay


About this Artist

Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Ulysses Kay started studying music at a young age, encouraged by his mother and his famous uncle, jazz musician Joe “King” Oliver. During his years studying music at the University of Arizona, he met and was encouraged by William Grant Still. Kay later studied composition at the Eastman School of Music under Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson, who conducted the Rochester Civic Orchestra in the premiere of Kay’s Sinfonietta for Orchestra. After receiving his Master of Music in 1940, he took advantage of scholarships to study with Paul Hindemith, at Tanglewood and later at Yale.

Kay enlisted in the United States Navy in 1942 and was assigned to a band for which he produced many arrangements. After the Navy, Kay spent the 1946/47 academic year studying composition with Otto Luening at Columbia. After winning the prestigious Prix de Rome, he and his new wife Barbara relocated to Rome, Italy. He won a second Prix de Rome as well as a Fulbright Scholarship in 1951, which allowed them to remain at the American Academy in Rome until 1952.

After returning from Rome, Kay worked for many years for BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.). During the autumn of 1958, the State Department invited him and fellow composers Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, and Roger Sessions to go to the Soviet Union as part of an American delegation under the new cultural exchange agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Kay’s teaching career began in the summer of 1965, when he accepted visiting professor positions, first at Boston University, and then at UCLA. In 1968—he joined the faculty of Lehman College of the City University of New York. He was appointed a Distinguished Professor of Music and held that position until his retirement in 1989.

One of Kay’s earliest compositional successes was Of New Horizons, commissioned by American conductor Thor Johnson, who led the New York Philharmonic in its premiere and the Juilliard Orchestra in Kay’s Carnegie Hall debut.

In January 1947, Kay received First Prize in the Third Annual George Gershwin Memorial Composition Contest for his A Short Overture, which was then conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

While Ulysses Kay occupied himself with composition and working for BMI, his wife Barbara became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Although she would spend much of her time advocating for racial equality in their hometown of Englewood, New Jersey, Barbara also traveled to the South, including once for the Mississippi Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961. She was arrested, and ultimately sentenced to a $200 fine and four months in the maximum-security unit of the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. She returned to Mississippi in 1966 to participate in James Meredith’s March Against Fear, all the while working with the New Jersey chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).