African American Studies


Interviewee: Valerie Capers

Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison, Maxine Gordon, Dawn Russell

Date of Interview: December 14, 2006

Summarized by Alice Stryker

Valerie’s parents grew up in Harlem. Her maternal great grandmother came to Harlem from Virginia. After the couple was married they moved to the Bronx. She thinks that many newlyweds at the time would move from Harlem to the Bronx. When she was born, the family was living on 168th street between Union and Prospect Avenue. While she was living there, she lost her sight. When she was young she lost her vision. She had pink eye that would not go away and described one of the last scenes she saw. After 8 months in the children’s ward of a hospital, she finally was released. Soon after, the family moved to Union Avenue between Ritter and Freeman. In 1967, the family moved to Anthony Avenue, which is up near Grand Concourse. She mentions her Indian ancestry, which she gets from her mothers side. Her father was one of the first African American supervisors for the Postal Service.

When she was growing up she was surrounded by music. Her father was a jazz player and had many friends who played jazz as well. She also was sent to dance school. The family also had a lot of records. When she was 7 or 8 she started fooling around on the piano, not formerly learning how to play that is.

The family attended church at St. Augustine Church. The minister was Reverend Hawkins. She called Reverend Hawkins her blood father because he gave her his blood when she was very sick.

When she was attending the Institute for the Blind she formed real friendships. She attended high school there as well and graduated in 1953 and was the valedictorian of her class. The school was live-in and there was no emphasis on her being colored. There were many talented performers at the school and the school was invited to perform in Washington, a segregated city. She however, did not go because she did not want to be housed separately from her friends. When she was at the Institute she had very attentive and formal training on the piano using brail music books. After graduating, she took an additional year at the institute to prepare her for the Julliard auditions. She was talented enough and attended Julliard.

After Julliard, she began teaching. It was during this time that she moved away from concert piano to jazz. She got many of her students through the churches she was affiliated with. She eventually started teaching at a school. The first gigs she started playing as a jazz musician were with her brother, who was a very talented horn player. At that time, she wasn’t very good. In 1967 she got on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. At the time she began taking classes to get certified to teach in New York City Public Schools. In 1971, she began teaching at Bronx Community College.

She began composing when she was at Julliard. She had always been creating little melodies or tunes, but at Julliard she had a composition assignment which made her become more serious about her compositions. Her brother Bobby was a major inspiration for her to begin composing full time. He was unable to notate a rhythm and she was able to help him do it. The piece was called “El Torro” and it helped Bobby land a very important gig. She then talks about the other pieces that helped to make her brother famous. She also talks about the other musicians she knew that were from the Bronx.

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