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Dorothy Donegan

Dorothy Donegan is an NEA Jazz Master

Dorothy Donegan - piano

More than fifteen years have passed since the flamboyant jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan died. Sadly, few jazz fans, either then or now, are aware of what enormous orchestral capacity she had at the keyboard (1).

Dorothy was born in Chicago in 1924. Heeding her mother’s encouragement, she studied classical music at the Chicago Conservatory and the Chicago Music College. At eighteen, she became the first African-American to be asked to perform at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The event created enough interest to lead to some work in a film (Sensations of 1945) (2).

At the age of fourteen and studying classical piano she was also beginning her own jazz career, playing for a dollar a night at the city’s South Side bars (1) During a performance at the Hi-Jinx Club one evening, she met up with Art Tatum, who was so impressed with her abilities he became one of her champions. Despite her accomplishments in playing blues and boogie-woogie piano and making a recording for the Bluebird label, her love was for classical music and she hoped to be a classical concert pianist.

Dorothy never forgot her love of classical music so she continued her classical studies at the University of Southern California and taking Master Classes at the University of Maryland when performing in the Washington DC area. Her perseverance in both genre made her an exceptional pianist with a rich harmonic sense (2).

Dorothy’s career spanned over sixty years of performing throughout the U.S. and abroad. The late 1950’s was the period during which she developed her performance style (2). The end result was a flamboyant style that tended to get in the way of her extraordinary piano playing, John. S. Wilson’s coverage of one of her performances sometime later, compared her technical virtuosity to that of Art Tatum (2).

Finding she was more comfortable in a live setting rather than the studio her career was centered on nightclub engagements. As a result she didn’t make many recordings. Scott Albin suggests there is a compilation CD, “Dorothy Romps: A Piano Retrospective (1953-1979) that provides a sample of her many abilities (See Dorothy Donegan’s store on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Dorothy-Donegan/e/B000AQ153K/ref=ac_dtp_sa_link ) (3,4).

To quote Scott Albin: “She was best appreciated live, in lengthy well-attended engagements at night clubs like the Embers in New York and the London House in Chicago, where she offered kaleidoscopic sets that mixed her singing, dancing, and off-color jokes with piano excursions technically comparable to those of an Art Tatum or a world-class pianist.” Despite all this talent, in jazz circles she is scarcely thought of as a jazz pianist but thought of as a lounge entertainer. This is partly because much of her appeal was based on her visual antics (2).

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