Rhapsody in Black

Ulysses Kay was one of America’s leading Black composers

Composer Ulysses Kay writes at a piano. Columbia University

Rhapsody in Black - Ulysses Kay


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February 16, 2023

Composer Ulysses Kay dedicated his life to music. With more than 140 works representing the various genres of classical music, he was often described as one of America’s leading Black composers. He accepted that description as an honest attempt to recognize his contribution to American music. This caused issues because Kay was not a leading Black composer but a leading American composer who was showcased internationally. In 1958, Kay was a member of the first delegation of composers sent to the Soviet Union, and he served in the cultural, technical and educational exchange agreement with the United States. He had many compositions premiered by major U.S. orchestras and was a distinguished professor at the City University of New York. With all this acclaim and recognition Kay should be a household name.

Musical arrangements from Ulysses Kay

"Joys and Fears" from The Quiet One

“Joys and Fears” is a piece from the film The Quiet One. It was featured on the first album devoted to orchestral music of Kay. Encouraged by William Grant Still, Kay would study under Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson at Eastman creating works that are distinctively American in spirit and strength. The film The Quiet One is also one of the first significant film scores by a Black composer.

Once There Was A Man - The Detroit Symphony featuring William Warfield

This never commercially released recording of Kay’s Once There Was A Man was performed by the Detroit Symphony under the baton of Sixten Ehrling. It featured the Kenneth Jewell Chorale with renowned operatic baritone William Warfield who was once married to soprano Leontyne Price. This performance was from a live broadcast in 1969.

Symphony (1967)

Too little of Kay’s work has been commercially recorded, which may contribute to his absence in modern-day performances. This work, not to be confused with his Sinfonia in E from 1951, is his “Symphony” from 1967. This performance features the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by Jean Morel.

Brass Quartet: Fantasia / Arioso / Toccata

One work we do have a commercial release of is Kay’s “Brass Quartet: Fantasia / Arioso / Toccata (medley).” It was featured in the American Brass Quintet’s 1965 release, Music For Brass Quintet.


Host: Vernon Neal

Producer: Dan Nass

Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship

Additional music selections: Jeffrey Yelverton

Executive Producer: Julie Amacher