Ulysses Simpson Kay, Jr. was born on January 7, 1917 in Tucson, Arizona. His father, Ulysses Simpson Kay Sr., was a barber. His mother, Elizabeth Kay, had come from Louisiana. When he was six, his uncle, King Oliver urged Ulysses to study piano. Ulysses studied with William A. Ferguson. At age 10, he began studying the violin, and at 12, the alto saxophone. He soon organized a quintet with friends. In school, he sang in the glee club and played in the marching and jazz bands.
Ulysses was encouraged to follow his musical interests by William Grant Still. Ulysses met Still in 1936 while completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona. He had entered the school as a liberal arts major, but changed to a music education major before earning his B.M. degree in 1938.
Studies at Eastman
He entered the Eastman School of Music on a scholarship in 1938, and studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. Ulysses received his masters degree in 1940. While at Eastman, Ulysses formed friendships with Irma Allen, Raymond Morris, Kenneth Spencer, and William Warfield, and composers Mark Fax and Thomas Kerr. At the Berkshire Festival in 1941, Ulysses met Paul Hindemith, and continued working with him at Yale University for the next school year. With the outbreak of World War II, Kay enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was stationed with the band in Rhode Island. He played alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, and piano. Ulysses was also composing and arranging. He was granted an honorable discharge in 1946. Ulysses Kay studied at Columbia University in 1947 and spent summers at the Yaddo Festival, in Saratoga Springs NY.
In 1949, Ulysses was able to move to Rome due to the following grants: the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (1947), National Institute of Arts and Letters (1947), the Prix de Rome (1949 and 1951) a Fulbright Scholarship (1949), and the Gershwin Memorial Award (1950). In 1949, Ulysses married Barbara Harrison, who joined him in his residence in Italy, where she taught music at the Anglo-American Overseas School. The couple had three children named Virginia, Melinda, and Hillary. Ulysses returned to the United States in 1953 and was named advisor for the Broadcast Music, Inc. In the summer of 1965, he was a visiting professor at Boston University, and later was named Distinguished Professor of Music in 1972 at the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York.
Over his lifetime, Ulysses Kay composed approximately 140 musical compositions for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensemble, piano, voice, organ, and band. He also wrote five operas as well as scores for film and television. Kay’s works appear in numerous published editions and on approximately 21 recordings. His early works include the ballet Danse Calinda (1941) and the Four Pieces for Male Chorus (1941). In 1944, Kay’s piece titled Of New Horizons: Overture, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic and awarded an American Broadcasting Company prize.
On May 20, 1995, Ulysses Simpson Kay passed away in Englewood, New Jersey. At the time of his death, Kay was at work on a commission for the New York Philharmonic.