Dorothy Donegan

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Dorothy Donegan
Born(1922-04-06)April 6, 1922
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedMay 19, 1998(1998-05-19) (aged 76)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
GenresJazz, blues, classical, boogie-woogie
Instrument(s)Piano, vibraphone, vocals
Years active1936–1998
LabelsMGM, Capitol

Dorothy Donegan (April 6, 1922 – May 19, 1998)[1][2] was a classically trained American jazz pianist and occasional vocalist, primarily known for performing stride and boogie-woogie, as well as bebop, swing, and classical.[3][4]

Early life, family and education[edit]

Donegan was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois,[4] and began studying piano in 1928.[2] She took her first lessons from Alfred N. Simms, a West Indian pianist who also taught Cleo Brown.[5]

She graduated from Chicago's DuSable High School, where she studied with Walter Dyett, a teacher who also worked with Dinah Washington, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, and Von Freeman.[1] She also studied at the Chicago Musical College[4] and the University of Southern California.[6]


Donegan performing with American sailors at Camp Robert Smalls within Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, 1943

She was known for her work in Chicago nightclubs.[3] In 1942 she made her recording debut.

She appeared in Sensations of 1945 with Cab Calloway, Gene Rodgers, and W. C. Fields.[3] She was a protege of Art Tatum, who called her "the only woman who can make me practice".[7] She said that Tatum "was supposed to be blind...I know he could see women."[5]) In 1943, Donegan became the first African American to perform at Chicago's Orchestra Hall.[7][4] She later said of this pathbreaking performance:

In the first half I played Rachmaninoff and Grieg and in the second I drug it through the swamp – played jazz. Claudia Cassidy reviewed the concert on the first page of the Chicago Tribune. She said I had a terrific technique and I looked like a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph.[5]

In May 1983, Donegan, along with Billy Taylor, Milt Hinton, Art Blakey, Maxine Sullivan, Jaki Byard, and Eddie Locke, performed at a memorial service for Earl Hines, held at St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church in New York City.[8]

Her first six albums proved to be obscure compared to her successes in performance. It was not until the 1980s that her work gained notice in the jazz world.[3] In particular, a recorded appearance at the 1987 Montreux Jazz Festival and her live albums from 1991 were met with acclaim. Even so, she remained best known for her live performances. She drew crowds with her eclectic mixture of styles and her flamboyant personality. Ben Ratliff argued in The New York Times that "her flamboyance helped her find work in a field that was largely hostile to women. To a certain extent, it was also her downfall; her concerts were often criticized for having an excess of personality."[1]

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.[1] In 1992, Donegan received an "American Jazz Master" fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts,[9] and in 1994, an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University.[6]

Personal life and demise[edit]

Donegan died of cancer in 1998, aged 76, in Los Angeles, California.[6]


As leader[edit]

Year recorded Title Label Notes
1946? September Song Jubilee
1954? Dorothy Donegan Piano MGM
1955? Dorothy Donegan Jubilee
1957? Dorothy Donegan at the Embers Roulette
1959 Dorothy Donegan Live! Capitol Album liner notes claim this trio recording was made at "The Embers on Manhattan's elegant East Side."
1959? Donnybrook with Dorothy Capitol
1961 It Happened One Night Roulette
1963? Swingin' Jazz in Hi Fi Regina
1975 The Many Faces of Dorothy Donegan Mahogany Trio, with Arvell Shaw (bass), Panama Francis (drums); reissued by Storyville with trio tracks from 1961
1975 Dorothy Donegan Four Leaf Clover (Sweden) Trio, with Red Mitchell (bass), Lars Beijbom (drums); some tracks add Jan Allan (trumpet) - recorded live at "The Best of Harlem" in Stockholm, Sweden; expanded CD re-issue released in 1994 adds 3 tracks
1978 Live at the King of France Tavern LiSem released 2015
1979? Makin' Whoopie Black & Blue
1980? Sophisticated Lady Ornament
1980 Live in Copenhagen 1980 Storyville Trio, with Mads Vinding (bass), Ed Thigpen (drums); in concert
1980? Live! CNR
1981 The Explosive Dorothy Donegan Progressive Trio, with Jerome Hunter (bass), Ray Mosca (drums)
1986 Live at the Widder Bar Timeless
1990 Live at the 1990 Floating Jazz Festival Chiaroscuro Trio, with Jon Burr (bass), Ray Mosca (drums); in concert
1991 The Incredible Dorothy Donegan Trio Chiaroscuro Most tracks trio, with Jon Burr (bass), Ray Mosca (drums); some tracks quartet, with Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) added; in concert
1992 Dorothy Donegan Trio with Clark Terry Chiaroscuro Most tracks trio, with Jon Burr (bass), Ray Mosca (drums); some tracks quartet, with Clark Terry (trumpet) added; in concert
1995? I Just Want To Sing Audiophile


  • 1944: Sensations of 1945 – musical performer, United Artists
  • 1980: North Sea Jazz Classics 1980 – live performance registration by NOS/NPO
  • 1995: Jazz at Newport '95 – featured performer, concert for PBS
  • 2008: Dorothy Donegan: Pandemonium


  1. ^ a b c d Ratliff, Ben (May 22, 1998). "Dorothy Donegan, 76, Flamboyant Jazz Pianist". The New York Times. Retrieved September 14, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Travis, Dempsey J. (1983). An Autobiography of Black Jazz (1st ed.). Chicago: Urban Research Institute. ISBN 0-941484-03-3.
  3. ^ a b c d Yanow, Scott. "Dorothy Donegan". AllMusic. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Scheinman, Ted (January–February 2021). "Fascinating Women". Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution. p. 20.
  5. ^ a b c Balliett, Whitney (February 15, 2006). "Dorothy Donegan". American Musicians II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 232–238. ISBN 978-1-57806-834-0. Retrieved September 14, 2011.
  6. ^ a b c "Dorothy Donegan, Famed Jazz Pianist, Dies". Jet. June 8, 1998. pp. 38–39. ISSN 0021-5996. Retrieved September 14, 2011 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b Waldron, Clarence (December 1983). "Dorothy Donegan: Bouncy as ever at age 61". Ebony. pp. 87–90. ISSN 0012-9011. Retrieved September 14, 2011.
  8. ^ "Earl Hines Memorial Service". The New York Times. 5 May 1983. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  9. ^ "Dorothy Donegan | Pianist, Vocalist, Educator". NEA Jazz Masters. National Endownment for the Arts. Retrieved April 5, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

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