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 Wizard's Walk."
In 1991, Ungar married fellow musician Molly Mason, whom he had first met during the 1970s. They continue to perform as a duo, with their band, Swingology, and as the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band with Jay's daughter Ruth Ungar (her mother is Lyn Hardy) and Ruthy's husband Michael Merenda.
In 1992, Ungar and Mason provided the soundtrack to the acclaimed documentary film Brother's Keeper, which has been released as a music CD entitled Waltzing with You (1998). In 2006, the duo headlined the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle.
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