Blessed with an enormous orchestral capacity at the keyboard, Dorothy Donegan was fluent in several styles of jazz as well as with European classical music. Underrated by some due to her proclivity towards showy flamboyance and her penchant for entertaining an audience, she was nonetheless an exceptional pianist with a rich harmonic sense.
Given her virtuosity, it's no wonder her earliest influence and one of her champions was the peerless master of the piano, Art Tatum. Encouraged by her mother to be a professional musician, Donegan was playing piano for a dollar a night at Chicago's South Side bars when she was only 14. She subsequently attended the Chicago Conservatory, Chicago Music College, and the University of Southern California, where she studied classical piano.
In 1943, Donegan gave a concert at the Orchestra Hall in Chicago, the first African-American performer to do so. This created publicity that led to some work in film (Sensations of 1945) and theater (Star Time). Her playing career was largely centered around nightclub engagements, as Donegan was more comfortable in a live setting than a studio.
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.
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. In 1983, she appeared on Marian McPartland's NPR radio program, Piano Jazz. Despite her many years of performing, she didn't appear at the legendary jazz club Village Vanguard in New York City until 1987. The New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson wrote at the time: "Miss Donegan has never let her show-business surface interfere with her virtuosity or her sensitivity as a pianist. No one since Art Tatum has brought together a flow of running lines, breaks, changes of tempo and key, oblique references and rhythmic intensity as skillfully as Miss Donegan does."
In the early 1990s, her showstopping appearances on Hank O'Neal's Floating Jazz cruises brought her talents to the attention of another generation of jazz fans. She also lectured at several colleges and universities, including Harvard, Northeastern, and the Manhattan School of Music, and received an honorary doctoral degree from Roosevelt University in 1994. Donegan performed at the White House in 1993 and gave her last major performance at the Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival in 1997.
Dorothy Romps: A Piano Retrospective, Rosetta, 1953-79
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