"I'm just a freak for classical, I love it," confesses jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan, who opens at Charlie's Tuesday for a week's run. "Sometimes I might say, 'Oh, this Rachmaninoff concerto fits in with "Rainy Day." ' " The Los Angeles resident enrolls at the University of Maryland for two weeks of classical instruction every summer and the rest of the year gets up at 6 a.m. to play Bach, Chopin, Grieg and other favorites. But she never practices jazz, which for her is a "feeling."
Donegan was started on piano lessons at age 8 in the early 1930s in her native Chicago, and it was soon apparent that she was a child prodigy. She wore out one teacher after another, was playing blues at house rent parties for 25 cents an hour at age 12 and then began classical studies at the Chicago Conservatory because she "figured that I had the chops." She has the chops all right--the late Art Tatum checked her out when she was 17 and told her she "was the only woman pianist who made him want to practice."
When Donegan arrived in New York in the early '40s it was observed that she "played like a man" although her stage presence included (and still does include) some unmanly antics. The union even called her on the carpet when an "obscenity charge" was filed against the Embers club (where she had a five-year contract) in the mid-'40s. The union decision was that "she can wiggle as long as she keeps on playing the piano."