Ulysses Simpson Kay was born on January 7, 1917 in Tucson, Arizona. His musical talent was apparent early on and at the suggestion of his uncle, famed band leader and jazz cornetist, “King” Oliver, he began studying the piano at home. In 1934 he enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson and received his degree (Mus.B) in 1938. He continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson and obtained a Master’s degree in Music in 1940. He also attended Paul Hindemith’s classes at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood (1941–42) and Yale University.
In 1942 Kay enlisted in the United States Navy and played in a U.S. Navy band for three and a half years during the Second World War. While in the Navy Band he played saxophone, flute, piccolo and piano, and the posting also gave him the opportunity to arrange and compose. After the war, he studied composition with Otto Luening at Columbia University. A Prix de Rome award and a Fulbright Fellowship enabled him to live in Italy from 1949 to 1952. When he returned to the United States, he settled in New York City and was employed as Music Consultant by Broadcast Music, Inc. from 1953 to 1968. He served as a visiting Professor of Music at Boston University in 1965 and at the University of California at Los Angeles (1966–67). In September 1968 he became Professor of Music at the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York, where he was named a Distinguished Professor in 1972. He retired from teaching in 1988.
Professor Kay has held the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, received grants from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964–65. In 1958 he was a member of the first group of composers to participate in a cultural exchange mission to the Soviet Union. He was also the recipient of honorary doctorates from Lincoln College (1963), Bucknell University (1966), Illinois Wesleyan University (1969), his alma mater, the University of Arizona (1969) and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music (1981).
Kay’s music has been described by Nicholas Slonimsky as “a distinctly American idiom, particularly in its rhythmic intensity, while avoiding ostentatious ethnic elements; in harmony and counterpoint, he pursues a moderately advanced idiom, marked by prudentially euphonious dissonances; his instrumentation is masterly.”
He wrote in all the major genres of music, with a particular emphasis on orchestral works (Chariots, Concerto for Orchestra, Southern Harmony) and choral music (Inscriptions from Whitman, Song of Jeremiah, Pentagraph). His five operas also constitute a significant addition to the repertoire, especially the two full length works Jubilee (1976; first performed in 1976 in Jackson, Mississippi) and the monumental Frederick Douglass (1980-85), which was successfully premiered by the New Jersey State Opera, in Newark, New Jersey on April 14, 1991.
A longtime resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, Ulysses Simpson Kay died on May 20, 1995 in Englewood Hospital, Englewood, NJ.