A Portrait In Soul, or Adventures with Admiral Analog's Audio Assortment,
Part 4 of 8
Valerie Capers is a wonderful pianist, composer, and educator who began her recording career with Atlantic Records' Portrait in Soul (1966). That was the record we found last autumn tucked deep in the racks of Admiral Analog's Audio Assortment in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
What about those cool shades?
Capers appears on the cover of her debut recording assuming one of the fashion hallmarks of a cool jazz player, i.e. a pair of sunglasses, indoors. But like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder, Capers donned the glasses in part because she is blind. She was born in the Bronx and after graduating from the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, went on to become the first blind graduate of Juilliard School of Music. This meant, however, that Valerie Capers trained as a classical pianist and had every intention of playing that genre of music in her professional career.
But her brother, who played with Mongo Santamaria, turned her on to the jazz sound, and only five years after graduating Juilliard she recorded an album for Atlantic Records. Portrait in Soul features six tracks, five of which are written by Capers, demonstrating her talent for composing and arranging. The liner notes state that Valerie was a bit hesitant about the title of the album, as she said "We have tried to present as broad a picture as possible of what the group can do musically and still put out a record that has commercial appeal."
Capers would go on to play with a who's who of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Ray Brown, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Max Roach, James Moody, and many others. But that didn't necessarily translate to album recording sessions. This was in part because she never gave up her teaching career. Valerie was always fiercely passionate about teaching, holding a variety of prestigious positions at colleges and universities on the east coast. When one looks at her recording career, it is not until she retires from being the Chair of the Department of Music and Art at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY) in the mid-1990s that she begins to produce more albums on a regular basis. The other reason for her slower output of albums is due to her focus on composing long works, including orchestral or operatic pieces. She has continued to vacillate between classical and jazz all her life.
But back to those shades...
The photograph gracing the front cover of Portrait in Soul was created by iconic jazz musician and photographer Les McCann. He is one of those rare artists that can create beauty in multiple art forms, in his case both on the piano and with his camera. As writer Travis Atria noted in a 2015 interview, "If McCann never touched a piano in his life, he’d likely still have become famous as a photographer."
For the cover of Portrait in Soul, Capers appears as a figure emerging from the shadows, set against a deep emerald background. When one looks at this photo, they can almost imagine being in the audience of an intimate jazz club and seeing Capers sitting at the piano, waiting to get started, with a green curtain at the back of the stage. The print that was used for this photo also includes the "punch holes" of the 35mm negative running down the left and right sides. This almost casual approach to showing the image seems to be emblematic of McCann's own strategy for photographing subjects. In his own words, McCann said, "There’s no difference between jazz and photography, or any art form. It’s all about creativity. It’s not always a conscious thought..." He took pictures the way he played the piano, letting his creativity guide him, and capturing candid shots that didn't seem too staged. His "casualness" was what allowed his particular talent to shine through, without letting "planned outcomes" get in the way.
Both Valerie Capers and Les McCann are LIVING LEGENDS, and you can find out more about them below.
The quotes we used for Les McCann came from a great interview by Travis Atria for Red Bull Music Academy in 2015.
Les McCann's latest photography book is called Invitation to Openness.
Valerie Capers has a website filled with info about her life as well as her recordings. Don't forget to buy some music and support living artists!