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Thu, 04.06.1922

Dorothy Donegan, Chicago Pianist born

Dorothy Donegan

This date recalls the birth of Dorothy Donegan in 1922. She was a Black pianist.

From Chicago, her father was a cook on the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad and her mother rented rooms for extra family money.  With her mother’s encouragement and patience, Donegan began piano lessons at the age of five. She got much of her music education in public schools. At 14 she was playing in southside nightclubs for $1 a night and while attending DuSable High School she was hired to play jazz piano with The Bob Tinsley Band.  She recorded her first album in 1942, blues and boogie-woogie selections for the Bluebird label.

Donegan aspired to be a classical pianist and continued to study that style with Rudolph Ganz in her hometown and later at the University of Southern California.  She became the first African American artist and first jazz pianist to perform at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. Her program was a combination of Grieg and Rachmaninoff and jazz standards. A newspaper review of the show caught the attention of jazz great Art Tatum, a mentor who influenced her style the most. Donegan’s intimate manners with her keyboard technique made her a club favorite for many years. She turned down work in Hollywood films, though she did headline the first all-Black show at Hollywood’s Tom Breneman Café in 1949.

During the 1950’s Donegan played clubs from coast to coast. She married John McClain and had a son who is also a musician. The relationship, unfortunately, ended in a divorce with Donegan mentioning in an interview years later “I think artists should be by themselves.” By the 1970s Donegan was a regular on the Jazz Festival circuit in the United States, Canada, and Europe, performing as a soloist, with “The Dorothy Donegan Trio.” She continued to perform until the fall of 1997 when health problems ended her career.

Speaking about her music, she once said, “A wiggle never hurt anybody.” Dorothy Donegan died of colon cancer in May 1998.

To Become a Musician or Singer


Jazz People
by Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York
Copyright 1976
ISBN 0-8109-1152-3

ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980
ISBN 0-8351-1283-1

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