Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Ulysses Kay papers, 1938-1995

Summary Information


Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) was a noted twentieth-century American composer. The collection includes audio reels, biographical materials, correspondence, diaries, phonograph records, photographs, programs, and scores.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#1506
Bib ID 7341105 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Kay, Ulysses, 1917-1995
Title Ulysses Kay papers, 1938-1995
Physical Description 37.50 linear feet (25 document boxes, 9 record storage cartons, 38 flat boxes, 36 CMI boxes, 2 card files, and 4 phonograph record boxes)
Language(s) The materials are predominantly in English, with a few items in Italian and Russian.

The following boxes are located off-site: Boxes 1-38, 79-102, 104-114. You will need to request this material from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

This collection has no restrictions. If you would like to use audiovisual materials in Series IX, please contact the library in advance of your visit to discuss access options.

Unique time-based media items have been reformatted and are available onsite via links in the container list. Commercial materials are not routinely digitized. Email rbml@columbia.edu for more information.



This collection is arranged in eleven series and several subseries.



Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) was a noted twentieth-century American composer. Kay's papers include biographical materials, correspondence, diaries, photographs, scores, and programs.

The strength of the papers is in their documentation of Kay's work as a composer. Kay kept diaries to document his compositions, and these include information regarding the time of their composition, instrumentation, length, commissions, and performances. The papers also contain not only completed and published scores and libretti but also corrections, sketches, holographs, outlines, and information on source materials used for texts in his compositions. In addition, the papers include clippings, correspondence, photographs, programs, promotional material, and reviews that document the creation and performance of many of Kay's works.

There is also some documentation of Kay's work as a professor at Lehman College (1968-1989) in the papers, including appointment information, correspondence, press releases, and information on the Tribute Concert given at the time of his retirement in 1989. But while these records document some of Kay's administrative and professional activities, there are few records that document his teaching activities at the College.

The papers also include audiovisual materials. The collection includes a wide range of audio materials; including reels, cassette tapes, commercially issued phonograph records, and acetate disks. The majority of this material consists of performances of Kay's works, but there are also interviews, talks, and music used in television and commercials. There is very little video in the collection. There is also good coverage of Kay's professional career in the photographs contained in the collection. While the collection does not contain a large volume of photographs, many of the professional photographs in the collection are both identified and dated, and document a period of several decades.

The papers include some documentation of Kay's family and personal life, but it is not extensive. Materials include family photographs and correspondence, personal correspondence, and condolence letters written to the family upon Kay's death in 1995. There is also a small amount of material that was kept by Barbara Kay including correspondence, photographs, and materials related to the Civil Rights movement.

  • Series I: Kay's Diaries, 1949-1991

    This series contains Kay's two diaries. The main focus of the diaries is a list of compositions, with information regarding instrumentation, work length, dedications, commissions, composition dates, premiere performances, etc. The first diary also includes information about Kay's reproduction costs, his honors, and his travels. The second diary continues his list of travels, beginning at the back of the volume, and includes composition information about his opera Frederick Douglass near the beginning of the volume.

  • Series II: Music by Kay, 1939-1991

    This series contains documents pertaining to original works and one arrangement by Kay, in addition to a short song composed by his daughter. The main focus of the series is Kay's sketches, holographs, and published scores; however, other pertinent documents, such as libretti, correspondence, and notes have also been included in the series. The coverage of the records is quite comprehensive, but some works listed in Kay's diaries and in Hobson's and Richardson's bibliography remain unrepresented in the collection, and it lacks a few fully-realized scores. The compositions missing materials include: Christmas Carol (1943); Concerto for Orchestra (1948); Suite from "The Quiet One" (1948); Partita in A (1950); Phoebus, Arise (1958-1959); Two Pieces for Orchestra (1964); Four Hymn-Anthems (1965); Aulos (1967); Jubilee (1974-1976); a cadenza to one of Mozart's piano concerti (1979); and Everett Suite (1988).

    The series is arranged chronologically by the compositions' years of completion, following the order outlined in Kay's diaries wherever possible. Within each work, materials are arranged in approximate chronological order, but for works using texts or libretti, these are listed first. Unidentified sketches and notes appear at the end of the series.

    There is additional information regarding Kay's compositions and activities in Series VI: Professional Subject Files.

  • Series III: Performance Programs, 1938-1994

    This series contains concert and recital programs kept by Kay. This series is further divided into two subseries: the first includes programs that feature works by Kay and the second contains programs for performances in which no work by Kay was performed. Both subseries are arranged chronologically by year of performance.

  • Series IV: Biographical Materials, 1940s-1995

    This series contains materials that include biographical information on Kay. These materials document Kay's awards, catalogs of works, citations, commissions, honors, and professional activities. The series also includes biographical articles on Kay, condolence letters, curriculum vitae and résumés, obituaries, publishers' brochures, naval service records, school transcripts, and vital records.

  • Series V: Correspondence, 1941-1995

    This series consists of both professional and personal correspondence.

  • Series VI: Professional Subject Files, 1941-1997

    This series contains subject files that document Kay's professional activities. Kay's filing system was not exact; materials related to a particular subject (such as a particular work) may be found not only in the file for the specific subject but also in the files for related persons and general subjects. The files include correspondence, announcements, brochures, clippings, contracts, notes, photographs, publicity materials, reviews, and royalty statements.

  • Series VII: Season Files and Other Clippings, 1941-1998

    This series contains clippings files related to Kay's professional activities and performances of his works.

  • Series VIII: Photographs, circa 1920s-1993, undated

    This series contains personal and professional photographs related to Ulysses Kay. The photographs are arranged chronologically.

  • Series IX: Audiovisual Materials, 1947-1988, undated

    This series contains audio and video primarily related to Kay's professional life. The materials include U-Matic video, film reels, audio reels, audio cassettes, commercially-issued phonograph records, and acetate discs.

  • Series X: Barbara Kay Files, circa 1955-1991

    This series consists of a small amount of material kept by Barbara Kay. These files contain a calendar, correspondence, and a few photographs. The files also contain materials related to the civil rights movement, including pamphlets, material on issues related to Englewood, New Jersey, and materials related to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

  • Series XI: Annotated, Inscribed, and Signed Materials, circa 1947-1986

    This series contains materials that are annotated by Kay as well as materials that are either signed or inscribed to either Ulysses Kay or to someone in the Kay family. The materials include inscriptions from authors, composers, conductors, musicians, and family members. The series also includes a small number of annotated scores and The Norton Scores: An Anthology for Listening.

  • Series XII: Additions to the Collection

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

The following boxes are located off-site: Boxes 1-38, 79-102, 104-114. You will need to request this material from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

This collection has no restrictions. If you would like to use audiovisual materials in Series IX, please contact the library in advance of your visit to discuss access options.

Unique time-based media items have been reformatted and are available onsite via links in the container list. Commercial materials are not routinely digitized. Email rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes, except that permission is required to copy musical scores. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Ulysses Kay Papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.


No additions are expected


Gift and purchase from Virginia, Hillary, and Melinda Kay, 2009

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

Papers processed by Elliott S. Cairns (GSAS) 2010-2011.

Papers processed by Catherine C. Ricciardi 2012-2013.

Revision Description

2012-09-18 File created.

2012-09-21 XML document instance created by Catherine C. Ricciardi

2013-07-22 XML document instance updated by Catherine C. Ricciardi

2016-04-08 XML document instance updated by Catherine C. Ricciardi

2017-08-22 XML document instance updated by Catherine C. Ricciardi

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

2019-11-19 Added links to digitized audio material. ccr/kws

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Audiotapes Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Clippings (Information Artifacts) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Correspondence Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Diaries Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Librettos (documents for music) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Photographs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Programs (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Scores (documents for music) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
African American composers Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Cohn, Arthur, 1910-1998 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
College teachers Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Composers -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Composition (Music) -- 20th century Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Dorr, Donald Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Herbert H. Lehman College -- Faculty Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Herbert H. Lehman College. Music Department Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Kay, Ulysses, 1917-1995 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Melnechuk, Theodore Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Music -- United States -- 20th century Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Musicians Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Operas Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Rochberg, George Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Television music -- Scores Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Universities and colleges -- Faculty Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical Note

Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) wrote more than 140 compositions in a wide range of forms – five operas, over 20 large orchestral works, more than 30 choral compositions, 15 chamber works, a ballet, and numerous other compositions for voice, solo instruments, film, and television.

Born in Tucson, Arizona, to a musical family, his mother encouraged him, and with the advice of her brother, Joe "King" Oliver, Kay studied piano, violin and saxophone. He entered the University of Arizona in 1934, receiving the Bachelor of Music in 1938. For the next two years he studied composition at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson, and received the Masters in Music in 1940. From 1941 to 1942 he studied with Paul Hindemith at Tanglewood and at Yale.

During World War II, Kay served in the U. S. Navy, playing with and arranging for the Navy Band, stationed at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. His most prominent composition from this period is "Of New Horizons" for concert band. Commissioned by Thor Johnson and performed by the New York Philharmonic, its premier took place in Lewisohn Stadium in July 1944.

Upon discharge from the Navy, he was awarded the Alice M. Ditson Fellowship for creative work at Columbia University, where he studied with Otto Luening from 1946 to 1947. During the summers, he was a resident at the Yaddo Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York. Major works from this period include: "Danse Calinda Suite," his ballet "The Rope," "Concerto for Orchestra," and the film music for "The Quiet One."

Many honors and scholarships followed, including a Fulbright Scholarship, and grants from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship. From 1949 to 1952, Kay received two "Prix de Rome" awards that allowed him to travel and study in Italy. The first African-American to receive the prize, it gave him residence in the American Academy in Rome, along with his new bride, Barbara Harrison of Chicago, whom he had married on August 20, 1949. Compositions from this period include: a Piano Quintet, a String Quartet, a Brass Quartet, "Sinfonia in E," and "Song of Ahab."

Returning to New York, Barbara taught music in Manhattan, and Ulysses accepted a position with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) that would last from 1953 until 1968. Turning down several teaching positions, he preferred a job that gave him a regular schedule, allowing him to compose as much as possible. Compositions include: "A Lincoln Letter," "Six Dances for String Orchestra," "Fantasy Variations for Orchestra," and two operas, "The Boor," and "The Juggler of Our Lady."

In 1958, Kay was chosen to be a member of the first delegation of composers to the Soviet Union, a part of the U.S. State Department's Cultural, Educational and Technical Exchange Agreement. The others in his group were Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, and Roger Sessions. During the month-long trip, Kay appreciated the interest in Jazz expressed by Russian composers and he played them recordings of the music of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Louis Armstrong, among others. He also attended performances of his own compositions, those of his fellow delegates, and the works of Russian composers. Upon his return, Hi-Fi Review published his account of the trip entitled "Thirty Days in Musical Russia."

Over the decade from 1958 to 1968, Kay received a large number of commissions, writing a total of 41 compositions, including: "New York: City of Magic," "Phoebus, Arise," "Forever Free," "Markings," "Aulos," and "Choral Triptych."

Barbara Kay was no less busy during these years. She participated in the Mississippi Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961. Arrested in Jackson, she was held in the Parchman Penitentiary for 41 days, after receiving a six-month sentence for disturbing the peace. William Faulkner once called the plantation prison "Destination Doom." Returning home, she participated in the first sit-in in the North, when Englewood residents took over city hall to protest racial segregation in the schools in 1962. During the boycott of the Englewood, New Jersey schools, she held a Freedom School in the basement of the Kay home. In 1966, she joined James Meredith's "March Against Fear" in Mississippi. Later she continued to be active in the New Jersey chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.

In 1968, at the age of 51, Kay left BMI to join the faculty of Herbert H. Lehman College as Professor of Music, teaching theory and composition, where he would serve until his retirement in 1988. During his 20 years of teaching, he produced three more operas, "The Capitoline Venus," "Jubilee," and "Frederick Douglass." Other works from this period include: "Theater Set," "Five Portraits," "Scherzi Musicali," "Western "Paradise," "Jersey Hours," "Tromba," "Once There Was a Man," "Chariots," "Festival Psalms," and "Visions" written to commemorate the 80th anniversary of William Grant Still's birth.

As stated by Constance Tibbs Hobson and Deborra A. Richardson in their indispensable Ulysses Kay: A Bio-Bibliography (1994): "Kay's contribution to America's cultural life and to its contemporary music scene is outstanding. His distinguished career, reflecting personal industry, discipline, and will, sets an encouraging, honorable, and inspiring example for all who follow. His message to aspiring composers strongly advocates continued study and growth in order to better express one's vision and individuality."