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Dorothy Donegan Biography

Classically trained pianist Dorothy Donegan was born in Chicago circa 1922, and is primarily recognized for playing the boogie-woogie style of Jazz, as well as being the protégé of, and successor to, Art Tatum. She began studying music at 8, before becoming a student Walter Dyett, the acclaimed music teacher at DuSable High School who also taught other famous musicians such as Dianne Washington and Johnny Griffin. By her 14th birthday, Donegan had secured a gig at Chicago’s famed Hi-Jinxs Club, reportedly playing piano for one dollar a night.

After studying at The Chicago Conservatory and The Chicago College of Music, Dorothy made her recording debut in 1945 when she appeared on an album with Cab Calloway and W.C. Fields entitled Sensations. However, her experience in Chicago’s vibrant music scene shaped the future of Donegan’s career, as she became increasing known for her live act, and received very little attention from her numerous recordings. In 1943, she gave a concert at Chicago’s famed Orchestra Hall, becoming the first black performer to do so.  The concert, which was covered by TIME Magazine, got the attention of the man who would become her greatest influence, Art Tatum, who, as legend has it, after reading the article, showed up unannounced at Donegan’s front door looking to hear her play.

After brief flirtation with writing music for Hollywood studios, Donegan began engagements at New York’s Embers club and Chicago’s London House respectively. Performing nightly help Donegan create the flamboyant stage persona and engaging performance that would thrill audiences for the following 40 years. After relocating to Los Angeles, she became a popular mainstay on the Jazz festival circuit, both in the United States and abroad in Europe.
Despite her classification as a Jazz pianist, her classical background and eclectic musical taste help create an impressive live act that had the ability to transform itself and be adjusted to engross any audience. However, her diverse selections of genres and her lack of opposition to lounge work, which is often looked down upon within the Jazz community, left Donegen open to the constant and unfair criticism that she was not serious musician. Nevertheless, since Donegan’s death from 1988, when the knowledgeable critics look back at storied career in music, they are left in awe of both her musical virtuosity and her charming personality. It was perhaps best observed by New York Times music critic John Wilson, who wrote after seeing her perform in 1971, that Donegan "showed a technical virtuosity that could be compared only to that of Art Tatum and a swinging drive that might be equaled by Mary Lou Williams." He concluded the same articles by proclaiming "…She is potentially the greatest jazz pianist playing today."