Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ulysses Kay, African American composer, conductor and professor, was born January 7, 1917; Emily Abrams Ansari wins award in 2014 for article on 'Jubilee'

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.  As an adult, he was known simply as Ulysses Kay. He was born on January 7, 1917 in Tucson, Arizona.  Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of  Lawrence University has generously made his research entry on Ulysses Kay available to this Website.  The International Dictionary of Black Composers, published by the Center for Black Music Research, profiles Kay.

Dr. De Lerma writes that the boy began learning the piano at six, with the encouragement of an uncle who was a famous musician known as King Oliver. Prof. De Lerma notes that Ulysses formed a jazz quintet in which he played saxophone, and for which he composed and arranged music.  Glee club and marching band were among his musical activities in high school, we are told.

Prof. De Lerma writes that Ulysses Kay first majored in liberal arts at the University of Arizona, but later received encouragement from William Grant Still to study music.  Accordingly, 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 a jazz 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.

From 1942 to 1946, Dr. De Lerma reports, Ulysses Kay served in the U.S. Navy, performing several musical instruments while stationed in Rhode Island.  Kay enrolled in Columbia University in 1947, and in 1949 moved to Rome to study at the American Academy.  He returned to the U.S. in 1953 and began working with B.M.I.

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." The I.D.B.C.  reports that Kay felt a composer should not be limited by ethnic background.  "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."

Kay's opera Jubilee was back in the news in 2014 when Prof. Emily Abrams Ansari of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her article on the work: 

"Vindication, Cleansing, Catharsis, Hope": Interracial
Reconciliation and the Dilemmas of Multiculturalism
in Kay and Dorr's Jubilee (1976)

It was published in American MusicVol. 31, No. 4
(Winter 2013),  pp. 379-419.  The link has been added
to the Ulysses Kay page at

Comments by email:

1) Hello Bill!  My goodness. Thanks so much! I'm copying 
my sisters here too, so they can enjoy your posting linked 
below.​  What a lovely surprise. I look forward to reading 
all of it.  Thank you again,  Virginia  [Virginia Kay]

2) Wonderful, Bill! Thanks so much.  And happy birthday 
to the great composer himself!  Emily  [Emily Abrams 

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