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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — August 2023: Dorothy Donegan

Dorothy Donegan was born in Chicago on April 6, 1922. Her father, Donazell Donegan, was a cook, and her mother, Ella Donegan, rented out rooms in the family’s large apartment. Donegan’s mother used the rent money to support her daughter’s music studies. Donegan readily admitted that it was her mother who truly appreciated her talent, listened to her, and encouraged her to put feeling into her music. Her mother even served as her first business manager.

With her mother’s encouragement, Donegan began taking piano lessons when she was five years old and obtained her musical education in Chicago’s public schools. By the age of ten, she was already performing as a church organist, and began playing jazz professionally in local nightclubs during her high-school years. At 14 years old, she became the first African American to perform at Costello’s Grill in Chicago. At the age of 17, she graduated from Chicago's DuSable High School, and was hired to play jazz piano with The Bob Tinsley Band.

In 1942, Donegan recorded her first album of blues and boogie-woogie on the Bluebird label. However, despite her early jazz success, she still aspired to be a classical pianist. Consequently, she continued her classical music education, studying piano at the Chicago Musical College and later attending the University of Southern California. One year after releasing her first jazz album, Donegan became the first African-American performer and first jazz pianist to perform in concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The concert earned Donegan a frontpage review in the Chicago Tribune and caught the attention of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum. Blessed with an enormous orchestral capacity at the keyboard, Donegan was fluent in several styles of jazz, as well as with European classical music.

In the 1950s, she developed her flamboyant performance style, which at times tended to obscure her extraordinary piano playing, deep sense of swing, and wide-ranging repertoire. She would often spice her performances with uncanny impressions of other pianists and singers, skills that enhanced her abilities as an entertainer. She spent the bulk of her career performing in trios with bass and drums. Her appearance at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in 1980 broke all previous attendance records.

Unfortunately, her first six albums proved to be obscure compared to her successes in performance. In 1987, a recorded appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival and her live albums from 1991 were met with acclaim. Even so, she remained best known for her live performances. Ben Ratliff argued in The New York Times that "her flamboyance helped her find work in a field that was largely hostile to women.

Donegan was often referred to as “the wild one,” “the triumphantly unfettered, “the shoulder-shaking, finger-popping, hip-slapping lioness of piano rooms.” At the same time, however, critics also were quick to add that Donegan was, “wild but polished,” “possessor of enormous technical skill,” and “brilliant, ridiculously talented.” Donegan was outspoken about her view that sexism, along with her insistence on being paid the same rates as male musicians, had limited her career.

As Donegan entered the last decade of her life, she finally seemed to be earning recognition commensurate with her talent. She was awarded a Jazz Masters fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 and played at the White House in 1993. The following year she received an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University, and in 1995 she made a guest appearance on Sesame Street, playing the blues with Hoots the Owl. During this period Donegan also lectured at several universities, including Harvard, Northeastern, and the Manhattan School of Music. Her last big show was in 1997 at the Concord Jazz Festival in the Bay Area.

Despite being underrated during her lifetime, Donegan was an exceptional pianist with a rich harmonic sense who broke race and gender barriers. She was a musical genius who was ahead of her time.


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