A Q&A with Jazz Pioneer and the Only Blind Graduate of Juilliard, Valerie Capers

  1. You are referred to as a “demi-legendary figure” by New Yorker Magazine. You are the first and only blind graduate of the Juilliard School of Music having earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, you won a Women of Essence Award along with Oprah Winfrey, were inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame and you served on an international committee requested by the United Nations to unify and standardize braille music. Could we go back and examine how you got to this point?

    First of all, not to be funny, but there’s no such thing as sight reading braille music. It’s a very laborious process of reading bars of music for each hand and then putting them together. I was part of a group of consultants requested by the United Nations to standardize braille music. For example: A blind musician learning a Mozart Piano sonata with the new “standardized” system will be learning that piece with that same presentation which has now become unified for all blind musicians.

    But to go back, there was never any question that music would not be part of my life. I came from a family where music was a very important part of our lives, radio, recordings. I knew that music would be the primary thing in my life, which was even more emphasized when I got sick when I was 6 years old and lost my sight. One morning I woke up with pink eye and then I got a sore throat. And I got worse and worse. It turned out that I had streptococcus in my system that travelled to my optic nerve. I was in the hospital for three months. The doctors contacted hospitals all over to see if anyone had a situation like mine. Only one adult male had it, but he didn’t live. Eventually a social worker came to the hospital and taught me to read the braille alphabet and told us about the boarding school, the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind.

    They told the music teacher that I had a very good ear, although I didn’t read braille music yet.   In 7th grade I started to play real music, like Beethoven.

    My teacher, Ms. Elizabeth Thode, had gone to Juilliard. The New York Institute of the Education of the Blind, now known as The New York Institute for Special Education, had prepared us for the fact that it would be hard after we left the school. But I decided that I wanted to be the first blind graduate of Juilliard—that was where musicians go, case closed! I made up my mind to go there. I knew I could cut it.

    I sneaked into a jazz course with John Mehegan and my daddy went with me. That was at Juilliard’s extension school, so I already knew my way around Juilliard. I knew the floor plan before I got there. I wanted to be able to get around on my own. I knew I could not be “led around”. I needed to get to the water fountain, the library and the ladies’ room.

    My next step was the Entrance Exam in the spring of 1954.

    A challenge is important if this is what you want. Anyone who made a major contribution in life has had challenges.

    They called me “Ears” at Juilliard. I got an excellent education there.


  2. When your Christmas cantata, Sing About Love was performed at Carnegie Hall on December 18,1978, The New York Times described it as “structured with strains of bebop, Latin, gospel, blues, and several periods of European classical music, around some dramatic confrontations in the Christmas story…” and The New York Post wrote, “…first class holiday writing. It should be performed every Christmas.” Could you tell us about that piece?

    I was composing and arranging for John Motley’s All-City Concert Choir. He told me he would like to have a Christmas song without mentioning Jesus because there were kids of all faiths and backgrounds. So I thought, ‘How could I do this?’ So after much thought, I decided that Jesus could be replaced with The Baby. And I thought Jesus was all about love, so I called the piece, Sing About Love. In a sense, Jesus is a synonym for Love. That was what inspired me and it was received incredibly well. What started out as a song for the chorus expanded into a two and a half hour musical choral drama! It’s still the composition that I’m most proud of. I ended up conducting the entire concert at Carnegie Hall. Although for the finale, I joined in and played on the piano. Sing About Love was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and George Wein presented it at Carnegie Hall. I KNEW this piece was good. I believed in it.  I had taken a series of conducting lessons with Ron Sweitzer, so that I could conduct it myself. Remember now, in many cases the jazz musicians didn’t work with conductors, but the chorus was classical singers. The music had to be conducted. There were about 20 instrumentalists in the orchestra and 20 singers in the chorus.

  3. You have an enormously broad sound palate and have been lucky enough to work with some of jazz’s legends. Who have you been most Influenced by?

    I was around fifteen years old when I became aware of the contemporary jazz music of my day. My father played jazz piano, but it was the older swing style (“Stride” piano). My younger brother, Bobby Capers who played Saxophone was deep in the world of Charlie Parker (“Bird”). Needless to say, my “classical ears” were absolutely amazed at what was going on musically: Bill Evans, Ahmed Jamal, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane (“Trane”), Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Art Tatum—all this new world of music for me to discover! It took me many years from age fifteen to my early twenties; I graduated from high school, got my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Juilliard, starting to teach, and then adding all this new music that I discovered at fifteen! It took time to learn and feel the blues. It took time to listen to all these Piano players and how they played. This was a great challenge for me and to be very honest, I have found something in all the players of jazz music that has influenced me one way or another in a great and small way.

  4. When you began teaching, Helen Keller wrote a letter congratulating you and saying that your “splendid success is a source of joy to me.” A copy of that letter is in the Helen Keller Archives today. How did you feel about Helen Keller’s response to your work? 

    I forgot what was in that letter! It was a wonderful letter sent to the director of the Bronx Neighborhood Music School. It was my first employment after I graduated from Juilliard. I was most enthusiastic and grateful by Helen Keller’s response to the director.

  5.  What brought you to compose your book, Portraits in Jazz?

    As a teacher, I found that there wasn’t any music available for students who wished to play something not “classical”. Having come from traditional classical piano music, I ventured out to compose some pieces that would both satisfy the needs and enthusiasm for playing other musical styles.

    The pieces in my collection sound like popular songs, some pieces have a blues feeling, and it is definitely a contrast from the usual piano pieces for the intermediate student.

  6. The National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian awarded you a grant to compose a musical composition about the life of Sojourner Truth. Could you tell us more about that?

    I applied for a grant to compose Sojourner because I was so enthusiastic about her. Growing up, I had little exposure to African American history and the part it played in American history. I was an adult before I learned about Sojourner Truth. Sojourner was a slave in New York State, an area we usually don’t associate with slavery, where I used to spend my summer vacations!

    When Sojourner’s owner died, they were selling her, along with his sheep! Sojourner was a tall and muscular child, more like a boy. She was added to the sheep and she was sold off.

    As an adult, Sojourner traveled miles around the countryside, teaching against slavery and supporting justice, freedom, and women’s suffrage.  She even had an audience with Abraham Lincoln. The power of Sojourner excited me about creating my composition. I was so moved and very excited about her story and wrote the piece about her.

    Check out Valerie’s AWFC profile.

    Interview by Valerie Manahan

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