Ulysses Kay

Ulysses Kay


• 1917 1995


Ulysses Kay was the first notable African American composer to establish himself in the white cultural mainstream with scores that almost never employed the jazz blues colors or pictorialism employed by others, such as William Grant Still. He was very much a member of the musical establishment, with a college post and a style that evolved along the lines of his contemporary, William Schuman.

Kay was the nephew of jazz cornetist and bandleader King Oliver. He grew up in Tucson, AZ, then, as now, a city with a small, not very visible African American population. It was a place where, despite an undercurrent of prejudice (Marian Anderson couldn't get a hotel room there as late as the early '60s), talented individual blacks and Hispanics were encouraged to advance through the educational system. Kay obtained his bachelor's in music from the University of Arizona in 1938, then went on to obtain a master's in 1940 at the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. During the following two summers, he studied with Paul Hindemith at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood. After wartime service in the Navy (during which he played flute, saxophone, and piccolo in a Navy band and piano in a jazz band), he studied composition with Otto Luening at Columbia University (1946 - 1949). As a winner of the American Rome Prize, he was affiliated with the American Academy in Rome from 1949 to 1952.

Kay pursued a career as a consultant to B.M.I. from 1953 to 1968, leaving that for an academic post (following short stints in the mid-'60s at Boston University and U.C.L.A.) at New York's Herbert H. Lehman College, part of the C.U.N.Y. system, where he remained until his retirement in 1988.

Kay became a model for minority composers who wished to be taken seriously in a white world. He did this by blending in stylistically; his music sounded "American" in its rhythmic verve, but it almost never employed blues, jazz, or African elements. After a spate of populist works in the 1940s, Kay developed a somewhat more advanced but never avant-garde idiom, often contrapuntal and confidently but not crushingly dissonant, with muscular melodies moving over strong and ever-shifting rhythms, enhanced by a fine sense of orchestration. He was essentially a neo-Classicist, but a serious one like Walter Piston, rather than a parodist like Igor Stravinsky.

In the 1940s, he wrote two substantial chamber works, a quintet for flute and strings and a piano quintet, but mainly concentrated on compact orchestral pieces: Five Mosaics, Suite in Five Movements, A Short Overture, Suite for Strings, and the like. In the 1950s, he generated a far more varied output: the first two of his five operas; the first two of his three string quartets; a great many songs; and a number of substantial orchestral works, including the Sinfonia in E major, Concerto for Orchestra, and Serenade. He continued along these lines into the '60s, although his output began to drop off once he faced the demands of academic life. Unfortunately, much of his music remains unpublished, despite Kay's reputation and the fact that most of it, once he was established, was written on commission.