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Ungar was born in the Bronx (New York City), the son of immigrant Jewish parents from Eastern Europe. He frequented Greenwich Village music venues during his formative period in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, he became a member of Cat Mother and the All Night News Boys and, later, the Putnam String County Band. Although he has often played with David Bromberg, he is probably best known for "Ashokan Farewell" (1982), originally composed as a lament, which was used as the theme tune to the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War (1990). Many of his other compositions are familiar to contra dancers, notably "The Wizards' Walk."
In 1991, Ungar married fellow musician Molly Mason, whom he had first met during the 1970s, and they continue to perform together, with their band, Swingology, and occasionally Jay's daughter Ruth Ungar (her mother is Lyn Hardy) and her band The Mammals. Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, Ruth Ungar and Michael Merenda also perform together as the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band.
In 1992, Ungar and Mason provided the soundtrack to the acclaimed documentary film Brother's Keeper. This music has been released on a CD entitled Waltzing with You (1998).
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