Sunday, January 6, 2008

Ulysses Simpson Kay, African American Composer Born Jan. 7, 1917

[Ulysses Kay: Works for Chamber Orchestra; Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra; Kevin Scott, Conductor; Troy 961 (2007)]

Ulysses Simpson Kay, Jr. was an African American composer, conductor and professor who was born on January 7, 1917 in Tucson, Arizona. Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University has generously made his research entry on Kay available to He tells us young Ulysses was surrounded by music at home and began learning the piano at six, with the encouragement of an uncle who was a famous musician, King Oliver. The youth started learning the violin as well, at age 10, but at age 12 he dropped the piano and violin in favor of the alto saxophone. Ulysses formed a jazz quintet in which he played saxophone, and for which he composed and arranged music.

Kay belonged to the glee club, the marching band and the jazz band during his high school years. Tucson offered a variety of concerts and performances at which Kay heard classical music, band music and dance music, according to Dr. De Lerma. He writes that Ulysses first majored in liberal arts at the University of Arizona, but in 1936 and 1937 received encouragement from William Grant Still to study music. He relates that Ulysses Kay enrolled at Eastman School of Music in 1938, and made the acquaintance of a number of students of voice and composition, as well as members of Count Basie's Band.

According to The International Dictionary of Black Composers, several of Kay's orchestral compositions were performed from 1938-40, while he was a student at Eastman. The Berkshire Festival of 1941 was the occasion of Kay's first contact with the composer Paul Hindemith, Prof. De Lerma writes, and he studied with him at Yale in the next academic year. Prof. De Lerma writes:

With the outbreak of World War II, Kay enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was stationed with the band at Quonet Point, Rhode Island, in which he played alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, and piano, active also in composing and arranging. He was granted an honorable discharge in 1946.”

Receipt of the Alice M. Ditson Fellowship in 1946 provided him with opportunity to study with Otto Luening at Columbia University in 1947, with the summers spent at the Yaddo Festival, in Saratoga Springs New York.”

He moved to Rome in 1949, armed with a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (1947), a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1947), the Prix de Rome (1949 and 1951) a Fulbright Scholarship (1949), and the Gershwin Memorial Award for A short overture (1950).”

“He married Barbara Harrison in 1949, who joined him in his residence in Italy, where she taught music at the Anglo-American Overseas School. Their daughter, Virginia, was born in Rome in 1951. Their second child was Melinda, born in 1957, followed by Hillary in 1959.”

On his return to the U.S. in 1953, he was named advisor and then consultant to BMI, a position he held until 1968.”

The State Department included him in the first sponsored cultural exchange visit to the Soviet Union in 1958 where, from 17 September to 17 October he joined Roy Harris, Peter Menin, and Roger Sessions in visits to Moscow, Leningrad, Tiflis, and Kiev.”

The IDBC reports that the Moscow State Radio Orchestra performed Kay's composition Of New Horizons at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow in 1958.

Prof. De Lerma summarizes Ulysses Kay's career as a Professor:

“ In the summer of 1965, he was visiting professor at Boston University, and then at the University of California (1966-1967). He was named Distinguished Professor of Music in 1972 at the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York where he was initially engaged in 1968, retiring in 1988. In 1975 he was Hubert H. Humphrey Lecturer at Macalester College (St. Paul). He held the Mu Phi Epsilon Endowed Chair at the Brevard Music Center in 1979.”

The International Dictionary of Black Composers gives this overview of Kay's output as a composer:

“Ulysses Kay composed approximately 140 musical compositions for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles, piano, voice, organ, and band, and he wrote five operas as well as scores for film and television. Kay’s works appear in numerous published editions and on approximately 21 recordings. Avoiding obvious musical references to his ethnicity, Kay preferred to immerse himself in compositional procedures that were a natural outgrowth of his educational and international experiences. According to Robert D. Herrema, “Kay believes that a composer is the product of his extraction and environment as well as his political and ethnic interests, but should not be limited by them.” In spite of these reservations, however, Kay incorporated the use of black spirituals in the opera Jubilee (1974–76) and in his last opera,
Frederick Douglass (1979–85), treated the life of the legendary abolitionist.”

The IDBC divides the compositions of Kay into three periods, beginning with 1939-1946:

“His early period encompasses the years 1939–46 and includes such works as the ballet
Danse Calinda (1941) and the Four Pieces for Male Chorus (1941). As a young composer, Kay experienced his first major success in Of New Horizons: Overture (1944), a piece premiered by the New York Philharmonic and awarded an American Broadcasting Company prize. Suite for Orchestra (1945), winner of the BMI prize, was premiered by Dean Dixon and the American Youth Orchestra. Other works from this period include the Brief Elegy for oboe and string orchestra (1946), the Four Inventions for piano (1946) and A Short Overture (1946), which received the George Gershwin Memorial Award.”

Kay’s middle period, 1947–65, begins with the Suite for Strings (1947), which was premiered by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.”

“Two operas,
The Boor (1955) and The Juggler of Our Lady (1956), were composed, as well as String Quartet no. 2 (1956) and String Quartet no. 3 (1961); the string pieces were premiered at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan, respectively. The composer’s middle period culminates with two orchestral pieces—the Fantasy Variations (1963) and Umbrian Scene (1963)—and Two Dunbar Lyrics for mixed chorus (1965).”

“The composer’s late period (1966–95) begins with
Markings, for orchestra, and The Birds, for women’s chorus, both in 1966.”

“Three operas were composed during this period:
The Capitoline Venus (1969), Jubilee (1974–76), and Frederick Douglass (1979–85). At the time of his death in May 1995, Kay was at work on a commission for the New York Philharmonic.”

Ulysses Simpson Kay passed away in Englewood, New Jersey on May 20, 1995. His Overture to Theatre Set (4:28) is available on Cedille 90000 061 (2001), performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta under Conductor Paul Freeman.

The first major release devoted exclusively to the works of Ulysses S. Kay, Jr. is Ulysses Kay: Works for Chamber Orchestra; Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra; Kevin Scott, Conductor; Troy 961 (2007). Kevin Scott explains his professional activities:

In addition to my conducting activities, I am also active as a composer, with several of my orchestral works performed by major orchestras in the United States. At present, I am currently serving as director of the symphonic band program at Orange County Community College in Middletown, New York, and also do several gigs with the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia.”

Kevin Scott is also Project Director/Conductor for the Ulysses Kay Recording Project. He and the Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra recorded four of the composer's works for the 2007 CD:
Suite from The Quiet One was music written for an award-winning 1948 documentary film. Three Pieces After Blake, for Soprano and Orchestra dates from 1952 and is sung by Janet Hopkins, soprano. A work from 1968 is Scherzi Musicali. Melanie Valencia plays the flute on the final composition, Aulos, for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (1967).

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