Kay, the nephew of the classic jazz musician King Oliver, studied piano, violin and saxophone. Kay attended the University of Arizona where he was encouraged by the African-American composer William Grant Still. He went for graduate work to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and there worked under Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers.
After a stint as a musician in the United States Navy during the World War II, Ulysses Kay studied at Columbia University under Otto Luening with the assistance of a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. In addition to this prize, Kay received a series of five other significant awards in the year following his discharge from the Navy including the Alice M. Ditson Fellowship, a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an award from the American Composers and American Broadcasting Company, a $500 award from the third annual George Gershwin Memorial Contest for "A Short Overture," and a $700 award from the American Composers Alliance for his "Suite for Orchestra."
Kay worked for Broadcast Music, Inc., a performing arts organization, from 1953 to 1968. In 1968 he was appointed distinguished professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York. After two decades teaching there, he retired.
As a composer Kay was known primarily for his symphonic and choral compositions. He also wrote five operas. His final opera, Frederick Douglass, was mounted in April 1991 at the New Jersey State Opera with Kevin Maynor in the title role and Klara Barlow as Helen Pitts Douglass.
- The Juggler of Our Lady, opera in one act
- Libretto by Alexander King after the story by Anatole France.
- composed 1956; premiere February 23, 1962, Xavier University Opera Workshop, New Orleans, Louisiana
- The Boor
- Libretto by the composer after the play by Anton Chekov, translated by Vladimir Ussachevsky.
- composed 1955; premiere April 2, 1968, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky
- The Capitoline Venus, opera in one act
- Libretto by Judith Dvorkin after an episode in the writings of Mark Twain.
- composed 1969; premiere March 12, 1971, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
- Jubilee, opera in three acts
- Libretto by Donald Dorr after the novel by Margaret Walker.
- November 19, 1976, Opera/South, Jackson, Mississippi
- Frederick Douglass, opera in three acts
- Libretto by Donald Dorr.
- composed 1979-85; premiere April 14, 1991, New Jersey State Opera, Newark Symphony Hall, Newark, NJ
- Program notes by Dominique-René de Lerma for the African Heritage Symphonic Series Volume II (Cedille Records CDR 90000 061)
- De Lerma, Dominique-Rene. "African Heritage Symphonic Series". Liner note essay. Cedille Records CDR061.
- Bernard Holland (April 16, 1991). "Review/Music; The Struggles Of a Black Leader In Old America". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2009.
- Sullivan, Ronald. "Ulysses Kay, Prolific Composer And Educator, Is Dead at 78", The New York Times, May 23, 1995. Accessed September 21, 2011. "Ulysses Kay, a professor of music and a prolific composer of five operas, 20 large orchestral works and scores of choral, chamber and film compositions, died on Saturday in Englewood Hospital in Englewood, N.J. He was 78 and lived in Teaneck, N.J. The cause was Parkinson's disease, his family said."