Let’s say you are a woman born in 1922—a good year, the beginning of the “Jazz Age”—but you have the handicap of being African-American in an era where it’s difficult for you to get ahead. Yet your family discovers that you have immense musical talent at an early age, so you begin piano lessons at age five and you blossom. Despite the fact that you are black in a white-biased society, you have dreams of becoming a classical pianist. In you favor, you are light-skinned and very pretty. But by the time you’re eight years, the Depression hits and those doors seem closed to you.At age 14 you are already playing professionally in South Side nightclubs for $1 a night. A little later, while still in high school, she was hired to play with Bob Tinsley’s jazz band.
Then you arrive in New York, impress some of the right people with your astounding talent, and are introduced to Art Tatum, the greatest pianist in the history of jazz. Tatum, too, is impressed by your talent—he was quoted as saying that you are “the only woman who can make me practice”—and you become his protégé. (You later say that Tatum “was supposed to be blind…I know he could see women.”) He tells you that you’re too good to work for substandard pay, thus you should always demand the same money as a male pianist. When you and Tatum are both in the same club and another pianist challenges him, he tells him to play against you first, and if they can “beat out a girl” then he’ll compete with him. But no one ever does beat you, and Art takes particular glee in seeing you demolish the competition. Tatum helps you get connections to record your first album on the RCA Bluebird label in 1942; in 1943, you become the first African-American to perform at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The first half of your concert features Rachmaninov and Grieg; in the second half you “drug it through the swamp,” playing jazz. Chicago’s acerbic music critic, Claudia Cassidy, praises your terrific technique. Your career appears to be well and fully launched.
But something happens. You never seem to get a handle on exactly what, except for the fact that you continue to hold out for top dollar. Tatum introduces you to Cab Calloway, who gives you a wonderful cameo in his movie Sensations of 1945. You are offered appearances in other films, but not as a star; the pay is low and you refuse. Despite headlining the first all-Black show at Hollywood’s Tom Breneman Café in 1949 the jazz critics ignore you; you struggle for gigs, and even worse, for recording opportunities. In the late 1950s you marry John McClain, and by the early ’60s you have a young son to raise. The marriage sours and you get a divorce but retain custody of your son. You try going back to classical music, the love of your life, but although you manage to get one or two engagements in the post-Civil Rights era, you don’t have a high-powered agent and you don’t have a marketable name, not even in the jazz world. So you continue to play when and wherever you can. One of your most memorable concerts was one in which you played opposite Marian McPartland on NPR’s “Piano Jazz.” After a rousing performance of Little Rock Getaway, Marian says, “Oh Dorothy, you wasted me!” To which you replied, “It was no contest!”
Then suddenly, you catch a break—late in your career, perhaps too late to make a difference, but a break nonetheless. You perform at Carnegie Hall in 1981, and are heard by John Wilson of the New York Times, who writes that you are one of the greatest jazz pianists in the world. This leads to an appearance on pianist Phil Moore’s TV show, Ad Lib, and to bigger venues. In 1983 you are one of several pianists (Billy Taylor, Maxine Sullivan, Jaki Byard) chosen to perform at the memorial service for the great Earl Hines, and again you are singled out for praise. Suddenly, in your sixties, your career takes off a bit. You find a lot of work in Germany, and finally get to make some albums of your own. By 1993 you are a known commodity and are invited by President Bill Clinton to perform at the White House. Your fame is on the rise, but then you come down with cancer. Undeterred by the chemotherapy treatments, you continue to perform with your bald head wrapped in a turban. You are dazzling audiences again the way you did in your twenties, only now the money is better and you finally have name value.
And then, at age 76, you die.
This Hollywood movie-like scenario actually happened, and the recipient of those decades of hard luck was Dorothy Donegan. Jazz insiders knew who she was, but to the general jazz public she might as well have been invisible. Yet when she performed, she gave her all. If you watch the string of videos on YouTube of her dating from 1944 to 1998, you will see a woman who electrified audiences when she hit the keyboard. You’ll also see a performer with a “schtick” all her own. Donegan looked around the room when she played—often anywhere but at the keyboard. She made faces as if she were about to attack the keys like untamed lions. She hunched her shoulders, danced with her feet while seated or stood up and did a Jerry Lee Lewis-type of act. She would sometimes pretend to play badly before turning on a dime and producing perfect, two-handed Bach imitations. To many audiences, it seems, this was a bit too much; she was criticized for having “an excess of personality” when she played. Yet she still managed to evolve a style of her own, combining several Tatum-isms (she was, in fact, the only pianist besides the late Bobby Enriquez who could give you a nearly perfect Art Tatum imitation) with boogie woogie and the blues. Some of her playing sounded closer to that of Harry “The Hipster” Gibson than Tatum, and in some places she sounds prescient of such musicians as Phineas Newborn, Jr. or Horace Silver. She could play bebop with such incredible speed that she could even run Bud Powell into a corner. But she continued to struggle for decades while her male counterparts—and those women who would work for less money than men—got ahead.
It’s a little comforting to know that at least her last 18 years were relatively happy, but I have to think that for Dorothy fame came too late for her to really savor and enjoy it. Yet when one listens to her performances, one hears nothing but joy, the joy of producing music the way she liked it, emanating from her piano, even though at one point she tells a TV host that her real heart always lay with the classical side. Like all jazz musicians (even Tatum, to some extent), Donegan could “coast” on remembered licks, but more often than not she was inspired and inspiring to listen to.
I give you a few of her finest moments to savor:
1944: Her appearance in Sensations of 1945 in which she plays a swing arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with another pianist, Gene Rogers. Rogers also has a dazzling technique, but it is not as beautifully coordinated between his two hands as is Donegan’s playing; even if you weren’t watching the video, you could tell the difference when he solos.
1972: A blistering performance of Lover, combined with a rollicking blues-boogie rendition of Proud Mary.
1978s: A rare TV clip of Donegan playing and SINGING I Cried for You. This is the program where she admits that classical music is really the love of her life.
1980: A full set with her trio (other musicians, alas, unidentified) recorded in Aachen, Germany at the home of Friedrich & Gabi Klemme.
1981: Her appearance on Phil Moore’s Ad Lib program with a fairly good jazz singer, Spanky Wilson. I particularly loved their uptempo version of Summertime, and the funny, suggestive lyrics of a Pennies From Heaven parody called Benny’s From Heaven.
1980s: An absolutely dazzling arrangement and performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Flight of the Bumble Bee in jazz time. This one will make your head spin!
1991: A really lovely performance with Dizzy Gillespie of Sweet Lorraine.
1996: A TV appearance with the Count Basie band’s rhythm section in a program hosted by Steve Allen. On this program, Donegan plays a truly Art Tatum-esque rendition of I Can’t Get Started before moving into a boogie-woogie and classical music pastiche that is both wildly inventive and hysterically funny. For one of the few times in his life, Allen is at a loss for words.
Dorothy Donegan surely deserves wider recognition than she has so far gotten. I would say that, if anything, her star has fallen again since her death and can’t get up. If you enjoy listening to her as much as I do, PLEASE PASS THE WORD AROUND! This great, great talent deserves wider recognition. I now rate her one of my top 10 favorite jazz pianists, and that is a rarefied list that includes only the crème de la crème: Hines, Tatum, Powell, Nat Cole, Tristano, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Jack Reilly and Enriquez.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley