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Dorothy Donegan Did It Her Way: Fans Loved but Critics Belittledby Wilma Dobie
Copyright © 1999 Wilma Dobie
The death of Dorothy Donegan this past spring (May 19, age 76, Los Angeles) was lamentably largely ignored by the press and the jazz media as they did regrettably throughout most of the pianist's lifetime. The AP wire did give the indomitable artist lead preference in its daily obits round-up and the New York Times, with its promise of "All the News That's Fit to Print," gave Dorothy her due, including a one-column candid photo of the pianist in performance, and jazz author Chip Deffaa warmly recalled her "strength, energy, and imagination" in his New York Post column.
Interestingly, though, Times jazz scribe Ben Ratliff quoted his noted jazz predecessor, John S. Wilson's coverage of a Town Hall appearance in 1971 citing that '"Ms. 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." Oddly omitted was the Wilson quote that Donegan carried ever closest to her heart, ". . . She is potentially the greatest jazz pianist playing today." A reflection on this comment comes into focus with Chip Deffaa recalling in his obit, "She was probably the only jazz artist who, in the 1990's, could somehow satisfy the very different audiences of the Village Vanguard (the high temple of jazz purism) and the Tavern on the Green (the glitzy tourist nightspot) - both of which she loved."
The gutty truth, though, despite these admiring tributes at her death, is that never was Dorothy Donegan given due recognition for her artistry by the sacred cows of jazz, the critics, during her more than sixty years of performing throughout the U.S. and abroad. Wilson brought this to readers' attention: "In fact, in jazz circles she is scarcely even thought of as a jazz pianist. . . . Her reputation as a lounge entertainer has virtually buried the fact that she is potentially the greatest jazz pianist playing today." Leonard Feather, in his Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 1960s, lends support to this observation in his listing of Donegan with the closing comment, "Much of her appeal, however, is based on her visual antics." In a later edition Feather omits the pianist, as did John Chilton in his Who's Who Of Jazz and, more recently, both The Guiness Who's Who of Jazz and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.
It was during the 1970's that I first interviewed Dorothy for Jazz Forum, an international publication, and we became good friends. Her audience impact never failed to fascinate me. Not long after our first meeting she told me that she was among the musicians invited to perform at the ceremonies being held for the unveiling of the Duke Ellington piano at the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Would I be there?
Yes, I had been invited, and as the fates would have it, I found myself standing behind the Master of Ceremonies, the fabulous Sammy Cahn. His attention was riveted on Dorothy throughout her performance and before the next artist made his way out of the wings, Cahn turned to me, shaking his head, "I wouldn't give this next spot to a leopard but I have to follow the program."
Following any planned program was never meant to be for the flamboyant Dorothy. She frequently reminded her interviewers, "The artistry is always uppermost in my mind. It's not a matter what anyone says about me. I like audiences, I like people, and I like having fun with them." "Having fun" went something like this, Dorothy went on to explain: "Maybe somebody calls out, 'Play Melancholy Baby!' Okay, I have fun and play it like a Bach fugue." And, indeed, the pianist would enthrall her audience performing the classic with amazing authenticity but never denying them a whopping climatic jazz finale.
At age six, Dorothy began classical music studies in Chicago, where she grew up, receiving instruction at the Chicago Conservatory and the Chicago Music College. By age eight her teachers knew they had an exceptional student on hand who enjoyed her studies and hours of practice. "I hated housework," is how Dorothy would impishly explain her abiding love for studying, practicing, and composing at the piano until her death. "You can always keep learning - we all know there's no such thing as knowing it all," she later told interviewers as she diligently pursued studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at the University of Maryland, where she would enroll for two-week-long master classes when visiting and performing in the Washington, D.C., area.
Growing up in Chicago during its great jazz heyday, the young pianist heard popular pianists who were to become legends in her time. She began her own legendary jazz career in Chicago at age fourteen when she began performing at the Hi-Jinxs Club and met up with the fabulous Art Tatum. "Everyone knows my all-time favorite is Art Tatum," she grinned repremandingly at me when I asked about pianists she admired. Knowing Fatha Hines was jazz chairman with singer Maxine Sullivan for the Twilight Jazz programs at the New York's Overseas Press Club where I was a member and she had performed, she nodded, adding, "I listened a lot to Earl Hines at the Grand Terrace. Hines was a creative artist from the very start. I also liked Nat King Cole because he copied Earl."
Keeping in mind her technical brilliance at the piano and her contagious, youthful jazz personality during those early Chicago years, it comes as no surprise that a Hollywood talent scout spotted her at age eighteen for a feature spot in the movie, Sensations of '45. She was pressed into touring with the film and when it ended in New York her incomparable career was launched into the next more that fifty memorable jazz years here and abroad.
"Lady Dynamite," as I always called her (taken from an admiring introduction made at a festival in France), stayed in touch over the years either at festivals/concerts but more often by phone, a favorite form of communication by Dorothy. One memorable phone call I'll always remember is the time I called on her 73rd birthday. She was playing not far from home at Seattle's popular Jazz Alley. She was later often to remind me of this call. I "made her day" by reading from the New York Times a double-column story originating in Seattle about a prominent microbiologist who would preserve your DNA for the next 10,000 or 500,000 years at a price. The headline read: "Immortality for Sale: The Price Is Only $35." Lady Dynamite's husky voice roared with laughter over the phone. "I'm buying. I trust him more than jazz critics for my immortality." Right you are, Lady Dynamite.