Xak Bjerken Plays Ulysses Kay's Inventions for Piano

By: Xak Bjerken, 
Fri, 11/20/2020

Finding My Way to Kay

When COVID-19 struck, I was musically and personally adrift and found myself questioning my musical and cultural heritage—some serious navel gazing. My wife Miri bought me a 23andMe DNA test. I wondered, did the music of my background (mostly Norwegian, part Slavic) particularly speak to me, and when did my interest in new music appear? I ordered the complete piano works by two Nordic composers, Grieg (some hits, some misses) and Sibelius (found a piece called “Bjerken”), and then turned towards Rachmaninoff (ah, that lush pessimism!). Then, as I looked through my scores, I remembered with delight the Four Inventions for Piano by Ulysses Kay. These were the first works of “new music” I learned around age 13 or 14, before launching into other American classics—Copland’s Piano Variations, and Barber’s Excursions. As a young teenager, I was preparing for a competition in Los Angeles, and had a choice of various works written after WWII, and my father helped me choose this contrapuntally melodic and beautifully clear-minded set of pieces. I thought “why isn’t Kay a bigger name these days—is this another forgotten Black composer?” Well, the answer is yes.

Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) was one of American’s most sought-after composers in the quarter century following WWII. He was born to a musical family in Tucson, Arizona, encouraged by his uncle, the great jazz cornetist King Oliver (mentor to Louis Armstrong), and later by the composer William Grant Still. Following studies at Eastman, and then at Tanglewood and Yale with Paul Hindemith, Kay served in the Navy during WWII. Following the war, he was already, in his late 20’s, fulfilling orchestral commissions, writing chamber music, for film and television, and soon, ballets and operas. 1947 brought a premiere at Carnegie Hall and performances by Leonard Bernstein, and in 1948, he wrote music for the film The Quiet One, a documentary about the struggles and rehabilitation of a young Black boy driven from his home, narrated by James Agee and nominated for two Academy Awards. The year following, Kay moved to Italy for four years with his new wife, Barbara, twice awarded the Prix de Rome (1949, 1951) as well as a Fulbright, and in Rome, their first daughter, Virginia, was born. Clearly, he was on a roll, so much so that Lucky Strike cigarettes featured him in an ad—how many classical composers get that attention!? (More here.)

Barbara and Ulysses Kay in Rome, c. 1950

Lucky Strike looks for legitimacy, 1960

Two weeks ago, on Election Day, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Virginia Kay, Kay’s eldest daughter, about her parents and their very different but intertwined professional lives. We spoke about her father’s intense work ethic, and her parents’ social milieu that combined leading writers and composers of the 50’s and 60’s in Englewood, NJ, with radical leaders in the civil rights movement. Barbara Kay was an activist, and Ulysses Kay was seemingly not, preferring to speak through his music. That said, they supported each other’s passions and Virginia tells of her father using his money from commissions as bail for their friends in the civil rights movement. Barbara Kay was one of only three Freedom Riders from New Jersey, and was a leader in desegregating the schools in Englewood, NJ, as a member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). She spent two months in prison near Jackson, Mississippi, in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary and after returning home, took part in the first sit-in in the North, taking over Englewood’s city hall in 1962 to protest school segregation, when she was again thrown in jail. Ironically, the US State Department had, only two years earlier, sent “Mr. Barbara Kay,” as he was later to be known amongst their friends, to the Soviet Union in 1958 as a cultural ambassador together with composers Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, and Peter Mennin. In turn, the Russians sent a group of composers to the US the following year, including Shostakovich and Kabalevsky, and who greeted them at the Idlewild Airport in NY—the seven-year-old Virginia Kay! In the years to come, Ulysses Kay would go on to write five operas, works for most of the leading American orchestras, choruses, and chamber organizations (a complete list of works is here). Kay was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and held a 20-year professorship at Lehman College, CUNY.

7-year-old Virginia Kay greets Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, and other Soviet composers as they arrive in the US, 1959

I would like to turn to that moment, just after the war, when his career was starting to blossom and he wrote the fresh but confident Four Inventions for Piano. As it turns out, he originally wrote Eight Inventions, but for reasons unknown, when they were premiered by the pianist Lucy Brown at her NY debut recital at Town Hall in 1947, only four were played, and subsequently published. A little digging on the internet revealed that the manuscript for the full Eight Inventions is held by the Kay Archives at Columbia University, and I was sent a copy with its beautiful script. You immediately sense the craftsmanship in these pieces, the concision, a mid-century turn to earlier forms, with a beautiful control of harmony and pacing. This is not Kay’s more dissonant and austere later style, but a composer finding his voice from the European models of his schooling. The way they relate in key area, the segues between the pieces, and the topography of their contrasting characters is, to my ear, much more effective here than in the published set of four. As you can see in the ordering below, the Allegro that wraps up the set of Four originally opened the piece, and the original final Presto is quite a rush. I am particularly drawn to the elegant understatement of the Larghetto, perfectly paced, and the austere Grave movement, reminding me at moments of Shostakovich. The order of the Inventions is:

Allegro (No. 4 of the Four)

Moderato (No. 1 of the Four)


Scherzando (No. 2 of the Four)



Larghetto (No. 3 of the Four)


I hope you will enjoy listening as we together discover more of Ulysses Kay’s music and help return him to his rightful place in the history of American music. I am very grateful to Virginia Kay for sharing her stories and for being such a warm and gracious Zoom companion as we toasted democracy. Jennifer B. Lee, the amazing curator of the Performing Arts Collections at Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, provided me access to the manuscript of the Eight Inventions from 1946. She mounted a wonderful online exhibit about Kay here. Also thanks to the director of the American Composers Alliance, Gina Genova, who has been advocating for Kay’s music for years, and whose organization posted Nicolas Slonimsky’s early overview of Kay’s work in 1957, found here.

All photos courtesy of the Ulysses Kay Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Ulysses Kay