I’m not proud to admit this, but until a month ago, I had no idea who Dorothy Donegan was. I was researching Nicky Hopkins on YouTube and one of her videos showed up in the queue to the right. It stood out because there were videos of the Stones, Kinks, and solo Nicky, but there was also a video of an older black woman I’d never heard of. Dorothy Donegan? Who the hell is that??? I clicked on the video below and was blown away.
The talent is obvious. Donegan jumps between genres and musical ideas at will, deconstructing everything from Rachmaninoff to “Battle Hymn Of The Republic.” She swings like a mofo, has no problem keeping up with the Count Basie Orchestra, and has a safecracker’s delicate touch when needed. And yet, for all of those musical abilities, her sense of showmanship and humor might be my favorite part of this performance. Dorothy is 74 years old and would be dead of colon cancer in just under two years. But, for 5 minutes and 44 seconds, she is a white hot incandescent light, undiminished by age.
Dorothy Donegan with Frank Foster’s Count Basie Orchestra
International Jazz Hall of Fame ceremonies
Tampa, FL, June 1996
As for why Dorothy Donegan popped up in my Nicky Hopkins video queue, that ended up making perfect sense. Like Nicky, Dorothy was a classically trained boogie woogie savant. She studied at the Chicago Conservatory, Chicago Musical College and later USC, but was also playing jazz nightclubs in high school. When she was 18, Art Tatum paid her a visit at home. “He came because other musicians had told him that I could outplay him,” she told the New York Times in 1983. “He’d show me a run. Then he’d show me the same run eight different ways. He’d take me around to the back rooms where he could do his best playing — for free. I was close to Tatum. He was the strongest influence on my playing. He called me his No. 1 girl”
Classical and jazz piano may have gotten her out of Chicago’s south side, but because she was from Chicago’s south side, she hit the black ceiling at every turn. Beyond that, you couldn’t make money showing off classical and jazz chops. You could, however, make money showing off a little leg and flirting with the audience while you played said classical and jazz. As Dorothy astutely put it, “A wiggle never hurt anybody.” And so a style was born.
“I always had a bit of hamminess in me. I call it ‘shakin’ it up.’ I used to wiggle while I played. I’d wiggle and roll my eyes. Then I started to dance, too. The Internal Revenue Service said that if I wiggled and danced, it should be taxed as entertainment. But, they finally decided as long as I kept on playing the piano, it wouldn’t be taxed. So, I played the piano standing up and kicking my feet. Then I’d kick the piano with my feet.”
–Dorothy Donegan, New York Times, April 1, 1983
As any musician who deigns to crack jokes and have fun on stage can tell you, hamminess comes with its own issues. There is always a cohort of musicians, music critics, and other cultural gatekeepers who take themselves and their opinions very seriously and they want their artists to be serious.Thus, Dorothy was ignored in some circles because she was black, ignored in other circles because she was a woman, and ignored in other circles because she was perceived as mugging for the audience. Her New York Times obituary addresses these clashing contradictions quite well.
Ms. Donegan was better known as a performer than as a recording artist and 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. She 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.
She could push humor into brazenness and kept up a supply of off-color jokes. She told writers without hesitation that sexism caused her obscurity. That, and her insistence on being paid at the same scale as her male colleagues.”
–New York Times, May 22, 1998
In that same 1983 New York Times profile, Donegan unapologetically addressed her hamminess, but she noted a then-recent turn back toward her classical training.
“I think something is happening to my playing. I think learning concertos is changing how I play things. My playing is getting more meaningful. I have more ideas. I’m getting more European. The collard greens are coming out of me. Show business is getting sublimated to the music. I can entertain, but I’d rather play the piano. At Jimmy Weston’s, they want me to sing. I’ll sing a couple of numbers, but I don’t think Ella Fitzgerald or Dolly Parton will lose their jobs.”
–Dorothy Donegan, New York Times, April 1, 1983
By the time Donegan arrived at the International Jazz Hall of Fame performance 13 years later, she had clearly reconciled these two contrasting sensibilities. She still had a devilishly quick sense of humor, but it was a humor that could transform into “Humoresque in G” at a moment’s notice.