I first came to know of Valerie Capers when I saw the 2013-2014 ABRSM syllabus which contains two of her pieces, one for Grade 4 and one for Grade 6. I was so taken with her music that I chose one of the pieces for the Jazz Set Piece Class at the upcoming Dulwich Piano Festival.
Here’s Valerie performing Billie’s Song, a tribute to Billie Holiday with vocals by the sensational LaDoris Cordell. This on the current Grade 4 ABRSM alternative list.
Valerie Gail Capers was born in New York City on 24 May 1935. Her father, Alvin Capers, was a professional stride jazz pianist until the Depression, and a close friend of Fats Waller. He was employed by the federal postal system at the Morgan Annex in New York for 36 years, and before he retired, he became one of the first African-American postal supervisors. Her mother, Julia, who worked in the civil service for the New York Department of Hospitals, liked to play piano, and there was always a large stack of sheet music on the piano.
Valerie’s parents grew up in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, during the Harlem Renaissance. At that time, people in Harlem entertained themselves at home; they did not go downtown to concerts at Carnegie Hall or to Broadway shows, even though black stars like Ethel Waters and Bert Williams were picked up by limousines and taken to the theaters where their hits were playing. Her parents had a huge record collection; they would listen to Porgy and Bess, or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, the Inkspots, Ella Fitzgerald, or early Connie Boswell records. For Christmas, Valerie would receive records of the Grieg Piano Concerto, or Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, or Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She was always exposed to all kinds of music. She began to play piano by ear almost as soon as she could reach the keys.
In 1941, when Valerie became ill and a sore throat was misdiagnosed. A streptococcal viral infection entered her bloodstream and damaged her optic nerve, leaving her blind. The last thing she remembers seeing through the window was “snowflakes as my father carried me up the stairs of our brownstone on East 168th Street.” 4 After she lost her sight, her father stopped going to church, and she recalls that the church had little influence on her from then on.
Braille music requires both hands to read, making it impossible to sight-read in the usual manner. Valerie had to take each little section and memorize it, then piece it all together. In later years at Juilliard, she would memorize all her repertory for the following year during the summers. She could never participate in the yearly concerto competitions because the required concerto would be posted only at the beginning of the school year, and there was never enough time to learn it.
Under Thode’s tutelage, Capers blossomed as a pianist, and by the time she was 12 she was practicing five or six hours a day. At age 15, she experienced a live concert for the first time when Mary Weir, one of her teachers, took her to hear a piano recital by Dame Myra Hess at Carnegie Hall. (They would become friends years later, and Capers still treasures her letters and a framed handkerchief.) Valerie soon gave solo recitals which were supported by her grandmother’s church and by her father’s colleagues at the post office, who would bring their families to hear her.
Her love of classical music grew as she was exposed to different genres. An older schoolmate at the institute, Dorothy Wright, loved opera and introduced Valerie to the Braille librettos in the school library and to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera with Milton Cross. In her senior year, she heard her first live opera at the Met, Puccini’s Tosca, sung by Zinka Milanov.
After graduating from the institute in 1953 as valedictorian of her class, she was advised by her teacher to take a year to prepare for college, during which she practiced eight to ten hours a day. She was offered scholarships at both the Juilliard School of Music and Barnard College. Capers chose to attend Juilliard, and Thode, who remained involved in Capers’ career all her life, helped her to pick out teachers. Among her memories from her six years at Juilliard are her analyses of Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the several miniature Singspiele she composed for her class in history of the theater, and the compositions she was required to write in different classical forms for her theory class. Capers was the first blind student to receive the bachelor’s degree from Juilliard and went on to obtain her master’s degree there in 1960.
Read the full biography of Valerie Capers here:
Billie’s Song can be found in this compilation of piano pieces, Portraits in Jazz. The pieces are Grade 4 to 8 in difficulty.