Ulysses Simpson Kay

Ulysses Kay was a prolific composer, WWII Navy veteran, music professor, political activist and gifted band musician. His compositional output includes numerous instrumental and choral works, 5 operas and several song cycles.

Photo: G.D. Hackett/Pictorial Parade, courtesy of chevalierdesaintgeorges.com

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Kay was born in Tuscon, Arizona in 1917 and grew up in a very musical environment.  His uncle was the acclaimed jazz cornetist King Oliver and Kay studied piano, violin and saxophone when he was young.  This musical upbringing had an impact on the young Kay as, after briefly enrolling as a liberal arts student at University of Arizona, he quickly switched his focus to music and then went on to pursue a Masters in Composition at Eastman.  During WWII, he served in US Navy and played in their acclaimed US Navy band.  After his military service, he continued to study and compose and was recognized by many honors, including 6 honorary doctorates, a Fulbright Scholarship and two “Prix de Rome” awards which took him to study in Italy at the American Academy in Rome.  In 1958 he was honored to be invited by the US. State Department to be a member of the first delegation of composers to the Soviet Union as a part of the “Cultural, Educational and Technical Exchange Agreement”.  In 1968, Kay became a Professor of Music at Herbet H. Lehman College, where he taught theory and composition for twenty years.  In 1979 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

With more than one hundred forty compositions ranging in genre from operas, to compositions for television, Kay’s compositional output is extensive and diverse.  While his musical language is very chromatic, it is overall tonal and full of lyrical melodies, and his orchestration is full of creative timbral uses of instruments and lush harmonies.  His style is varied and he employs techniques both ancient, such as polyphonic voicing and imitative counterpoint, as well as new, such as Klangfarbenmelodie in his compositions. His output for voice includes five operas, several sets of songs for voice and piano and two sets for voice and instrumental ensemble.

–Antona Yost

This profile was created in 2022 as part of The Savvy Singer, an EXCEL Lab course at the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance and a collaboration with the Hampsong Foundation via the Classic Song Research Initiative.



Cairns, E. S. (2014). Rediscovering an American Master: The Ulysses Kay Papers. American
Music Review, Xliv(1)

Lee, J. (2012). Ulysses Kay Special Collection: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia
University. Current Musicology, (93). https://doi.org/10.7916/cm.v0i93.522

Wyatt, L. Kay, Ulysses. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 5 Oct. 2022, from https://wwwoxfordmusiconlinecom.proxy.lib.umich.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo9781561592630-e-0000014793

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