Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

Valerie Capers


Valerie Capers 

Interviewee: Valerie Capers
Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison, Maxine Gordon, Dawn Russell
Date of Interview: December 14, 2006
Summarized by Alice Stryker

Valerie’s parents both grew up in Harlem but after the couple was married they moved to the Bronx. When she was born, the family was living on 168th street between Union and Prospect Avenue. While living there, she lost her sight. 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 and listened to the family’s records.
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 and graduated in 1953. The school was live in and there was no emphasis on her being colored. 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 for the Julliard auditions. She soared at her auditions and was admitted to the school.
After Julliard, she began teaching. It was during this time that she moved away from concert piano to jazz. 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 a very good jazz pianist. 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 work. Her brother Bobby was a major inspiration for her to begin composing professionally. 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.

Keywords: Harlem, 168th between Union and Prospect Ave, Union Ave between Ritter and Freeman, Anthony Ave, The Pruitts (Betsy and Harriet), St. Augustine Church, Reverend Hawkins, Maxine Sullivan, Powhatans, Jackson Democratic Club, P.S 99, Institute for the Blind, Julliard, Helen Keller, Manhattan School of Music, Sing About Love the Christmas Cantata, Bobby Cappers, “El Torro,” “Watermelon Man,” “Don’t Bother me no more,”


© 2009 Bronx African-American History Project at Fordham University

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