Legendary musician Capers to perform eclectic mix with ensemble tonight



Valerie Capers describes her sound as a soft kind of jazz, something to listen to on a cool summer’s night. Nothing experimental or too avant garde. Something comfortable; perhaps a tune from the Great American Songbook.

The musician’s performance at 8:15 p.m. tonight  in the Amphitheater will mark her debut at Chautauqua Institution.

Capers, who lost her sight as a child, was the first blind person to graduate Juilliard with a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. She has recorded five albums, most recently Portraits in Jazz, which was released in 2000. She devoted a large chunk of her time to teaching music at the Bronx Community College in City University of New York, where she is now professor emeritus.

The list goes on.

Capers has made a mark in both worlds — music and teaching. She was the first recipient of Essence Magazine’s Women of Essence Award for Music, where she was in the company of fellow honorees Oprah Winfrey and Marla Gibb.

She talks fondly about her influences and what nudged her into jazz — after wanting to be a classical pianist as a child — all of which include her Bronx childhood; her father, who played stride piano, and brother Bobby, an accomplished musician; and her studies at Juilliard.

“My younger brother was a classical clarinetist, and he played some piano too,” Capers said. “He started playing jazz.

Growing up in the Bronx, I was the oddball on the block; Bobby’s sister who played classical music while everyone else played jazz. And he was the one who really pushed me to play jazz. It was hard, and I worked very hard, but my brother was the big influence.”

She learned Braille at the Institute for the Blind, where she attended primary and secondary school. She began studying classical piano at age 11. While in high school, Capers heard Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell and other bebop players on the radio, which began a lifelong desire to play jazz.

“I was not very good when I started,” she said. “When I was much younger, nobody wanted to play with me ’cause I was so bad. I was too scared, and too terrified of performing. A couple of my brother’s friends were very nice and they would practice with me and really helped me become a performer.”

Unlike performing, teaching and music came more naturally to her. An enthusiastic student, Capers became a happy teacher. She joined the staff of BCC in 1972, gained tenure in 1985 and retired as chair of the Music Department in 1995. She has received awards and commissions including Meet the Composer, the CUNY Research Foundation, the Smithsonian and the Fund for Artists of Arts International. 

“Teaching has always been a part of me,” she said. “I felt that it helped me build a sense of security. It may also be the reason that for so many years I didn’t get out and perform. I was always teaching.”

She has wanted to come to the Institution for a while and hopes the audience will enjoy a performance she has worked hard to put together.

“I would say, today, I’m an eclectic player of jazz,” she said. “When you play a piece of music, you don’t have words to help you. Words will usually give you the emotional impact with a great melody but I think it is a great challenge when you play something and you can make the audience feel intimacy, humor and magic without words. That’s what I try to do.”