Donegan, Dorothy 1922–1998
Dorothy Donegan 1922–1998
Dorothy Donegan rose to prominence in the male-dominated world of jazz music with unique flamboyancy and musical style. Mixing swing, boogie-woogie, vaudeville, pop, ragtime, and classical music styles with a heavy dose of “visual antics” and an outrageous sense of humor, she was best known as a performer rather than as a recording artist. While her recordings remain strikingly absent from most jazz anthologies, she made a lasting impression on her art form.
Donegan was born in Chicago on April 6, 1922. Her father, Donazell Donegan, was a cook on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, and her mother, Ella Donegan, contributed to the family income by renting out rooms in the family’s large apartment. Donegan’s mother used this rent money to support her daughter’s music studies. Donegan readily admitted that it was her mother who truly appreciated her talent, who 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. For the first five years, she studied with Alfred N. Simms. Later, the legendary Walter Henri Dyett, who tutored many celebrated jazz musicians, worked with her while she was a student at DuSable High School. She may have claimed, as Sally Placksin noted in American Women in Jazz, that she practiced to avoid housework, but clearly her dedication exploited her natural talent. 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. As a 14-year-old, she played in southside Chicago nightclubs for $1 a night and even crossed the color barrier by performing at Costello’s Grill in downtown Chicago. At the age of 17, she 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 with Rudolph Ganz 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
Born Dorothy Donegan, April 6, 1922 in Chicago; died May 19, 1998, in Los Angeles; daughter of Donazell Donegan, a railroad chef, and Ella (Day) Donegan; married and divorced to John McClain, Walter Eady, and William Miles; children: John, Donovan. Education: Studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music; Chicago Music College, 1942-44; University of Southern California, 1953-54.
Career: Classical and jazz pianist who performed in the United States, Canada, and Europe; selected festivals included Newport Jazz Festival, 1978; Kool Jazz Festival, 1981; Festival De Frauen, 1988; Floating Jazz Festival, 1991; White House Jazz Festival, 1993; Playboy Jazz Festival, 1994.
Selected awards: American Jazz Masters Hall of Fame, National Endowment for the Arts, 1992.
American performer and first jazz pianist to perform in concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. In the first half of her program, she performed Grieg and Rachmaninoff, then switched to a jazz format in the second half of her performance. The concert earned Donegan a frontpage review in the Chicago Tribune and caught the attention of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum.
Intrigued by Donegan’s “wide repertory and blizzard-fast fingers,” Tatum paid a visit to her home. She played for him, and he shared some of his techniques with her. He quickly became her mentor, and she particularly liked to watch how he “fingered all the runs.” While Donegan’s style reflected the art of other such jazz greats as Earl Hine and Errol Garner, she was most strongly influenced by Tatum.
In defining her own style, Donegan remarkably blended her varied musical talents, often putting together spontaneous melodies from unrelated songs. She moved easily between the worlds of jazz and classical music, often blending them within a single composition. As Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Donegan was best known “for her versatility, for her ability to move, without a moment’s hesitation, from boogie-woogie, to stride, to a classical piece to straight ahead contemporary jazz.” “[Y]ou never know where she’s going to go, she’s so creative she builds the song as she goes along,” commented fellow musician Illinois Jacquet in the notes accompanying the 1991 recording of Live at the Floating Jazz Festival. “She can do that because she knows so many songs and has such a great ear.… She doesn’t play in bands because she’s a band all by herself.” Donegan was blessed, as Heckman remarked in the Los Angeles Times, with “a musical imagination that saw no limits, that found fascinating, unexpected linkages between seemingly unrelated music.”
In addition to blending different musical styles, Donegan would add humor to her performances. As Ben Ratliff related in the New York Times, “She often would act out songs, mocking their words; do devastating parodies of pianists and singers, especially if they were in the audience, or get up and shake her hips while keeping up a left-handed riff.” Donegan perceived herself as an entertainer and justified her antics by coupling them with her supreme musical talent. In a 1991 interview with Whitney Balliet of the New Yorker, she recounted a story regarding her performance style. In the 1950s, the government taxed clubs an additional 20 percent if they had dancers or singers in addition to musicians. As Donegan described it, “I was doing a lot of wiggling then, moving my derriere around and snapping my fingers and carrying on, and the I.R.S. decided that I was entertainment and put the tax on. That hurt business, so I went to the musicians’ union, and the union asked, can she wiggle as long as she’s playing? And they said yes, and took the tax off. A wiggle never hurt anybody.”
Donegan’s flamboyant, highly energetic performances complemented her incredible musical talent. Not only was she in constant motion, but she was also known for her repertoire of off-color jokes. As Antoinette Handy pointed out in Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras, 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.”
Bedecked in opulent gowns and turbans, Donegan had a natural rapport with her audiences. Her playing style and showmanship were well-suited for intimate clubs, and it was in this venue where she most often performed. Following a stint in Hollywood, where she turned down a five-year contract with MGM Studios to appear in the United Artists film Sensation of 1945, and on Broadway in the show Star Time, Donegan played in jazz clubs in Los Angeles and New York. She also performed in a traveling show with the legendary African American comedienne, Moms Mabley. In 1949, Donegan headlined the cast of the first all-black show at Hollywood’s famous Tom Breneman Café.
During the 1950s, word of Donegan’s skill and showmanship spread. She began a series of engagements at the London House in Chicago, and was recruited by other top clubs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Donegan’s managers, Music Corporation of America, also signed her to a ten-year, $3,000 a week contract with the Embers, a posh supper club on East 54th Street in New York City. Her husband, John McClain, confidently promised to reimburse the club’s owner if he ever lost money on Donegan’s performances. It was a debt he never had to pay.
McClain owned several clubs in Los Angeles and Donegan played in many of them. He admired her virtuosity on the piano and believed, according to Leslie Grouse in Madame Jazz, that “she should have received more recognition for being one of the best from Bach and Beethoven to dirty blues and boogie-woogie.” During their marriage, McClain helped Donegan manage her career. They had a son, John, who is also a musician.
Donegan and McClain eventually divorced in 1959, although they remained good friends. She then married Walter Eady, with whom she had another son, Donovan. Donegan and Eady also divorced and she was married for a third time to William Miles. That marriage also ended in divorce. With characteristic humor, Donegan told Balliet, “I think I’ve been married three times too many. Every time there were dry periods in the sixties and seventies, I’d marry again. Then, when I got work, I’d drift away.” She also told the Los Angeles Times in 1992, “I think artists should be by themselves.”
There is much debate surrounding the existence of Donegan’s early recordings. McClane confirmed, for instance, that she had recorded a number of albums for the Decca, Continental, and Capitol labels during the 1950s. However, neither he nor Donegan knew what happened to them. As Placksin recounted in American Women in Jazz, Donegan believed Decca sold her recordings to a company which combined them with other recordings by women pianists. “They put us all together like a supermarket of goods,” Donegan claimed.
By the 1970s, Donegan was an established jazz performer and supported herself by playing in festivals in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Although she appeared most often as a soloist, she also performed occasionally as part of The Dorothy Donegan Trio. In addition, she maintained her reputation as an accomplished classical pianist. In 1976, she performed a Grieg concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic at Tulane University and with the Southeast Symphony in Los Angeles.
Although Donegan performed frequently throughout the world, she never achieved true stardom. She attributed her lack of fame, in part, to racism within classical music. Donegan performed in an era when African Americans received few opportunities to play with symphony orchestras. Although racism was less prevalent within the world of jazz, Donegan often had to battle sexism. Throughout her long career, she was always quick to point out the discrepancies she perceived between male and female jazz performers. While female jazz musicians often asked their male counterparts to perform with them onstage, the men rarely reciprocated. While Donegan had, according to Grouse, “the musical mastery, charisma, and prestige to impress any man [she] calls to play for [her] group,” she rarely received return invitations. She bluntly told reporters that sexism caused her obscurity, along with “her insistence on being paid at the same scale as her male colleagues,” as Ratliff pointed out. In a 1958 article in Ebony, Donegan remarked, “I’ve snowed them [male jazz pianists] all under except one (the late Art Tatum). Most of them play like women.”
Donegan continued to perform until the fall of 1997 when health problems, including diabetes and cancer, forced her to end her career. On May 19, 1998, Donegan died of colon cancer at her home in Los Angeles. While this “queen of the keys” may not have achieved the fame she desired or deserved, she certainly left a distinctive mark on the development of contemporary jazz. Donegan was imbued with a talent and spirit which burst forth not only through her fingertips, but also through her feet, which danced on the pedals. Often caught up in the intensity and energy of her music, Jacquet remarked that Donegan appeared as though “[s]he’d probably still be playing if someone hadn’t told her it was time to clear the theater.” She was what Grouse termed a “witty, wily, and warm performer,” and for this she will always be remembered.
Piano Boogie, Bluebird, 1942.
Dorothy Donegan’s Musical Compositions, 1942–1954, 1954.
Dorothy Donegan, 1959.
Makin’ Whoopee, Black and Blue, 1979.
Brown Gal, Krazy Kat, 1987.
Dorothy Donegan Live!, Capitol, 1990.
Incredible Dorothy Donegan Trio, Chiaroscuro Records, 1991.
Live at the 1990 Floating Jazz Festival, Chiaroscuro Records, 1991.
Dorothy Donegan Trio, Chiaroscuro Records, 1994.
Dorothy Romps–A Piano Retrospective (1953-1979), Rosetta Records, 1994.
Explosive Dorothy Donegan, Audiophile, 1995.
Dahl, Linda, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 72-73.
Grouse, Leslie, Madame Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 8, 10, 15-17, 21, 183-89.
Handy, D. Antoinette, Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras, The Scarecrow Press, 1981, pp. 184-85.
Hine, Darlene, Brown, Elsa, Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn, eds., Black Women in America, Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 345-46.
Placksin, Sally, American Women in Jazz, Seaview Books, 1982, pp. 193-95, 197.
Smith, Jessie, ed., Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 283-85.
Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians.
Walker-Hill, Helen, Piano Music by Black Women Composers, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 32-33.
Ebony, July 1958, pp. 15-19.
Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1998, p. B10; May 22, 1998, p. F23.
New Yorker, February 18, 1991, pp. 37-38, 40-41.
New York Times, May 22, 1998, p. A23.
Northeast Ohio Jazz Society Jazz Central, July 1998, pp. 7-8.
Record Notes from Live at the Floating Jazz Festival, 1991.
Time, November 3, 1958, p. 78.
—Lisa S. Weitzman