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James Willey was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1939. He began composing and the study of piano at an early age, later attending the Eastman School of Music where he studied composition with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. He also studied at The Tanglewood Music Center with Gunther Schuller.
The recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Composer Fellowships and a semi-finalist for the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards, his works have been performed by such ensembles as the Baltimore Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, The Seattle Symphony, the Audubon Quartet, the Esterhazy Quartet, The Tremont Quartet, Collage, The Society for New Music and the Twentieth (now the Twenty-First) Century Consort.
James Willey was for many years Distinguished Teaching Professor of Music at the State University of New York at Geneseo from which he retired in December 2000. He has also taught at the Eastman School of Music and Williams College. From 2002-2019 he served as a Vice-President for Outreach and Competitions with the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester.