Exploring Music's Complexities

Great Jazz Musicians Dorothy Donegan

Dorothy Donegan


This post is to acquaint you with one great jazz pianists, Dorothy Donegan.  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).

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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 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).

In the 1990s, her talents were once again recognized through her show stopping appearances on Hank O’Neal’s Floating Jazz cruises.  Dorothy also lectured and received an honorary doctoral degree from Roosevelt University in 1994.  She performed at the White House in 1993 and played her last concert at the Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival in 1997 (2).

Many fellow musicians found her intimidating, which accounts for her solo performances with just bass and drums (3).  To quote Dorothy:  “I’ve snowed them (male jazz pianists) all except one (the late Art Tatum). Most of them play like women,” (3).

For an opportunity to hear her talents,  go to iTunes or Amazon.com and listen to tracks from our new release scheduled for May 12 (https://www.wonderofsound.com.) and to youTube for more. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4de5d5S9lE and

Dorothy Donegan was married three times and died on May 19, 1998.


1.  Ratliff, Ben, Dorothy Donegan, 76, Flamboyant Jazz Pianist.  May 22, 1998.  http://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/22/arts/dorothy-donegan-76-flamboyant-jazz-pianist.html Retrieved September 4, 2013.

2.  Dobie, Wilma.  Dorothy Donegan Did It Her Way:  Fans Loved But Critics Belittled.  August 20, 1998.    http://www.jajzzhouse.org/gone/lastpost2.php37?edit=920665948.  Retrieved September 4, 2013.

3. Albin, Scott.  Dorothy Donegan Revisited.  March 17, 2009.  http://www.jazz.com/jazz-blog/2009/3/17/dorothy-donegan-revisited   Retrieved September 4, 2013.

4.  Retrieved September 4, 2013.  http://www.amazon.com/Dorothy-Donegan/e/B000AQ153K/ref=ac_dtp_sa_link

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