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Finding Your Musical Roots

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Composer Ulysses Kay sitting in front of a piano and holding a pen and paper in an undated photo.

Finding Your Roots is a television series on WNED PBS that uses genealogical research and genetic testing to discover family histories. It’s full of surprises and emotion. Guests are sometimes moved to tears when they learn of their ancestors’ struggles, or even misdeeds. I had an experience recently that reminded me of Finding Your Roots, but not my ancestral roots, my musical roots.

On Wednesday night I was watching YouTube videos about African American composers. My goal was to find inspiration for this blog post. I knew I wanted to write something for Black History Month. Then a video popped-up about African American composer Ulysses Kay. I didn’t know much about him, so I watched. 

Ulysses Kay

The narrator began talking about Ulysses Kay’s use of quartal harmony – a technique of building harmonic structures using the interval of a fourth. It was something he had studied with his teacher, Paul Hindemith, at Yale. I hadn’t heard the term quartal harmony since college, but it immediately reminded me of Brian Israel, my own composition teacher at Syracuse University. Dr. Israel once asked me to write a piece of music using quartal harmony techniques. 

Could Brian Israel have known Ulysses Kay? Hmm…. I had to find out. A quick Google search revealed that Brian Israel studied composition with Ulysses Kay as an undergraduate at Lehman College in the Bronx. What a thrill it is for me to learn that my musical roots trace back to Ulysses Kay and Paul Hindemith. I had no idea, and it took my breath away. Genealogical discoveries, whether ancestral, musical, or anything you’re passionate about can be emotional experiences. Below is a little of what I learned about Ulysses Kay and some links to his music. Learning that he was my teacher’s teacher was a moving surprise. Now I want to hear everything he wrote!

Ulysses Simpson Kay, Jr., (1917-1995) was an African American composer born in Arizona. He wrote 140 works for orchestra, band, chorus, chamber ensembles, voice, and organ as well as film scores and operas. He won two prestigious Prix de Rome awards and had an illustrious teaching career. He and his wife Barbara had three daughters. The Naxos record label recently released two recordings of Kay’s music – one featuring the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra performing Kay’s Fantasy Variations and Umbrian Scene conducted by Arthur Fagen, and the other featuring The National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic performing Kay’s Pietà conducted by JoAnn Falletta. You can hear music by Ulysses Kay on WNED Classical.


Chariots: An Orchestral Rhapsody
Bassoon Sonata
Tender Thought
Eight Inventions

Marty Wimmer

Marty Wimmer is your Midday Host on WNED Classical. He’s been with WNED since 1995. Recently retired from a long career as a public school music teacher, Marty is thrilled that he still gets to talk about music every day. He lives in Buffalo and is grateful for the many good friends he has in our local classical music community. You can reach Marty at

Marty Wimmer