Unsung Women of Jazz #3 – Valerie Capers

Valerie Capers

 “With jazz, you’re not interpreting; you’re composing on the spot. You have to develop your technique to the highest level so you are able to respond to a flow of creative ideas immediately. You should listen to everything — I listen to Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Beethoven — so all that will go into your creative soul. Then you can call upon all kinds of music during performances. That’s the thrill. That’s the challenge and that’s the beauty of jazz.” – Valerie Capers

How Dr. Valerie Capers has managed to remain obscure is a mystery. The good news though is that this brilliant pianist/composer/singer/educator is still with us and a vibrant part of the scene. So we can all make up for lost time.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Valerie Capers was picking out tunes on the piano at an early age. She lost her sight at the age of six.  While blindness may have been a deterrent to some, it was not for young Valerie.  She learned to read music by braille and received her early schooling at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind.   She then went on to obtain both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Julliard School of Music, the first blind person to graduate from the famed arts school.  She was a classical player at the time, but jazz had always been a part of her life.  Her father was a musical associate of Fats Waller and her brother Bobby, played sax and flute in Mongo Santamaria’s band. For a brief time in the early ‘60’s, Valerie joined her brother in Mongo’s group, composing and arranging a few tracks for the legendary percussionist, including the minor hit “El Pussycat”.  

 [Sony will not allow me to embed a clip of “El Pussycat” in my blog. Click HERE to view it on YouTube.]

In 1965, Dr. Capers recorded her first album, Portrait in Soul, for Atlantic Records.  It was a very good jazz sextet date, with a strong soul influence; not atypical of the era.  Saxophonist Robin Kenyatta was the most notable member of the group.  Though Dr. Capers would not record again as a leader until Affirmation in 1982, she was still very active; working with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and James Moody, among others. She wrote major jazz based works, such as Sing About Love, a Christmas Cantata, that was produced by George Wein at Carnegie Hall and Sojourner, an “operatorio” based on the life of Sojourner Truth. 

From her first album Portrait in Soul, Valerie Capers plays “Little David Swing”

Capers served on the faculty at Manhattan School of Music and then for many years, at Bronx Community College, where she became chair of the music and arts department, in 1987.  Also in 1987, Valerie Capers became the first recipient of Essence magazine’s first Women of Essence Award, for music.

Dr. Capers made her best known recording, Come on Home, in 1995.  It was part of Columbia Records’ “Legendary Pioneers of Jazz” series, but as Scott Yanow points out on allmusic.com, “ Valerie Capers is much too obscure and under-recorded to be a legend, and not old enough to be a pioneer. “ Nevertheless, Come on Home is an excellent album, mixing well-known jazz and pop standards with a couple of Capers’ originals.  Jazz luminaries Bob Cranshaw, Paquito D’Rivera, Mongo Santamaria and Wynton Marsalis, take things to an even higher level on their guest appearances.  

From Come on Home, Valerie Capers plays “In a Mellow Tone”

She followed-up, four years later, with the critically acclaimed Wagner Takes the “A” Train; which is highlighted by the title track, a slightly Wagnerian interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s classic; and by her version of “‘Round Midnight” which explores several  variations on the famous Monk theme in a little over eight minutes. 

Although Valerie Capers retired from the Bronx Community College faculty in 1995, her educational endeavors have hardly skipped a beat.  At 75, she is still based in her beloved Bronx; performing, recording and touring the U.S. and the world, never missing an opportunity to spread the gospel of jazz, leavened with her uniquely informative perspective.  Her website http://www.valeriecapers.com/ includes a great deal of information on what Dr. Capers is up to. Check out the site and catch her live if she’s in your area. You’ll be in for a real treat.

Dr. Valerie Capers tells an anecdote about Dizzy Gillespie, then plays “A Night in Tunisia” [Special Thanks to Dawn Russell’s Bongodawn Productions for this clip]

Recommended Recordings:

3 Responses to “Unsung Women of Jazz #3 – Valerie Capers”

  1. fascinating, as always
    first blind graduate of Julliard – how amazing

  2. Curt,

    Thank you for sharing this article about Dr. Valerie Capers. She sounds like a very inspiring woman, both musically and with her life.

    -Deborah E

  3. a lovely Sunday morning learning and listening. Thanks Curt!

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