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   Ulysses Kay Papers, circa 1938-1995

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Preferred Citation

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

COinS Metadata available (e.g., for Zotero).

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, circa 1938-1995
Physical description:37.29 linear feet (24 document boxes, 9 record storage cartons, 38 flat boxes, 36 CMI boxes, 2 card files, and 4 phonograph record boxes)
Language(s): In English.
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 two 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.  More information »



This collection is arranged in eleven series and several subseries.

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Scope and Content

Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) was a noted twentieth-century American composer. Kay’s papers include audio reels, biographical materials, correspondence, diaries, phonograph records, 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.

Subseries III.2: Programs Featuring Others, 1946-1989

These are programs that do not feature any works by Kay.

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.

Subseries V.1: General Correspondence, 1953-1995

This subseries consists of several files of miscellaneous correspondence that have been kept in Kay’s original file groupings.

Subseries V.2 Family Correspondence, circa 1944-1994

This subseries includes correspondence from Kay’s mother, siblings, wife, and daughters. There is one file of Kay’s outgoing correspondence filed at the end of the subseries.

Subseries V.3: Personal Correspondence, 1953-1980, 1991-1994

This subseries consists of general personal correspondence, as well as correspondence from poet Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk and composer George Rochberg.

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.

Subseries VII.1: Season Files, 1941-1989

This subseries contains files that document Kay’s activities during individual performance seasons. The files include not only clippings, but also correspondence, information on programs, performance notifications, and reviews.

Subseries VII.2: Other Clippings, 1949-1998

These are more general clippings files that document Kay’s professional activities. They are arranged chronologically, and Kay’s grouping of materials into individual folders has been left intact.

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

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

Subseries VIII.1: Professional Photographs Involving Kay, 1940-1991, Undated

This subseries contains professional photographs of Ulysses Kay. The photographs include portrait photographs, group photographs, and event photographs. The files are arranged chronologically, with unidentified and undated photographs being filed at the end of the subseries.

Subseries VIII.2: Other Professional Photographs, circa 1940s-1993, undated

This subseries contains photographs of others that are related to Kay’s professional activities. The photographs are primarily portrait photographs of performers.

Subseries VIII.3: Family and Personal Photographs, 1920s-1990, undated

This subseries contains primarily family photographs, although there are also some personal photographs taken in Holland, Russia, and of unidentified acquaintances. Most of the photographs are unidentified

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.

Subseries IX.1: Audio Recordings, 1947-1988 undated

The majority of this subseries consists of recordings of performances of Kay’s works, but there are also some interviews, lectures, talks, and music used in television and commercials.

Series IX.2: Video, 1959 undated

There is very little video in the collection. There is one video recording from the Urban League, and three film reels of watch commercials that used Kay’s music.

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 .

Subseries XI.1: Recordings, 1958 1984-1986

This subseries consists of four inscribed phonograph records. Two of these are from musicians Cecil Lytle and Wanda Maximilien, the others are from Gennady Rozdesventsky and Tikhon Khrennikov, both of whom were part of the composers exchange in Moscow in 1958.

Subseries XI.2: Scores, circa 1947-1972 undated

This series includes fifteen scores. Of these, about half have some annotations. Of the others scores, six are signed or inscribed by the composer or the lyricist, one is inscribed by Barbara Kay, and another is inscribed by J.G.R.

Subseries XI.3: Books, circa 1953-1983

This subseries contains both inscribed and annotated books. Of these, only one is annotated: The Norton Scores: An Anthology for Listening . The others books are primarily inscribed by family or friends, with the exception of Stokowski: A Counterpoint of View , which is inscribed by its author Oliver Daniel.

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Using the Collection

Partially Offsite

Access Restrictions

 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 two 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.

Restrictions on Use

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.

Finding aid is available online.

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About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries. Rare Book and Manuscript Library; machine readable finding aid created by Columbia University Libraries Digital Library Program Division

Processing Information

Papers processed by Elliott S. Cairns (GSAS), 2010-2011, and Catherine C. Ricciardi, 2012-2013.

Finding aid written by Jennifer B. Lee, Elliott S. Cairns, and Catherine C. Ricciardi, 2011-2013.

Machine readable finding aid generated from MARC-AMC source via XSLT conversion September 18, 2012 Finding aid written in English. Finding aid adheres to standards prescribed by Describing Archives: A Content Standard .
    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

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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.


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
Programs (Documents)PortalCLIOArchiveGRID


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
African American ComposersPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Cohn, Arthur, 1910-1998PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
College TeachersPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Composers--United States--20th centuryPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Composition (Music)--20th centuryPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Dorr, Donald--CorrespondencePortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Dorr, Donald--LibrettosPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Herbert H. Lehman College--Music DepartmentPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Herbert H. Lehman College--facultyPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Kay, Ulysses, 1917-1995PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Melnechuck, Theodore--CorrespondencePortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Music--United States--20th centuryPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Rochberg, George--CorrespondencePortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Television Music--ScoresPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Universities and colleges--facultyPortalCLIOArchiveGRID

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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."

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