Biography and Kay Family > Early Years
Ulysses Kay was born in Tucson, Arizona, on January 7, 1917. As he remembered his early years, "My musical memories date back to early childhood ... memories of my father (who had been a cowboy and a jockey in Texas, but was then a barber) singing and beating out rhythms to pacify or entertain me ... memoires of my mother singing in church and at work around home."
His mother, Elizabeth Davis Kay, was a good amateur pianist, and niece of the great jazz cornetist and bandleader, Joseph "King" Oliver. Kay remembered: "During one of our frequent visits to Chicago (when I was about five or six), she asked my Uncle Joe ... if he would teach me to play the trumpet. To which he replied, 'No, Lizzie. Give that boy piano lessons so's he can learn the rudiments. And then he'll find what he wants to do in music.' A most acute comment from a real musician whose work, style, playing and tunes, even then, were being literally taken 'on the cuff' by members of the confraternity who sat out front night after night while he played."
Kay also wrote about those visits to Chicago: "for years I remembered only the big, quiet, dark man with the bad eye, who always got up late in the afternoon and drank quart cups of sweetened water with his first huge meal of the day. Shy questions from me about Uncle Joe's band and his trumpet playing invariably broke his quiet mood and started him teasing me. Yet his work and life in music seemed magical and his phonograph records held no end of fascination for me."
On his great uncle's advice that the piano would be a good foundation for further study of any other instrument, his mother encouraged Kay to take piano lessons, and later violin and saxophone. In public school, he joined the glee club, then the marching band, and later the high school dance orchestra. He entered the University of Arizona in 1934, receiving the Bachelor of Music in 1938. As he wrote: "Piano study with Julia Rebeil introduced me to the works of Bela Bartok and other contemporaries; music theory with John L. Lowell gave me a completely new world to conjure with." And it was during his college years that a brief visit to William Grant Still set him firmly on the road to becoming a composer.