Dorothy Donegan

While visiting recently (Ted Gioia’s piece on Denny Zeitlin piqued my interest), I also came across Scott Albin’s look back at Dorothy Donegan’s career. If you don’t know about her, you’ve got to check her out. I knew her quite well, and my two favorite personal memories of her took place several years apart.

The first was at the home of a friend of hers in New York City on the upper west side. I was living in the same neighborhood at the time. This person was also a friend of Sweets Edison, and it was Sweets who had invited me to join him for dinner. Dorothy was there too, and after dinner, we all went upstairs to the music room. Dorothy said she was just beginning to practice classical pieces as she was slated to appear some months later with a Symphony. She started playing a Chopin Nocturne, this one (no, that’s not her playing):

but she stopped midway in the second section, saying she didn’t remember the rest. I was in my early 20s. My conservatory-trained classical chops were in pretty good shape back then, and as befitting my know-it-all ultra-confident age, I said “move over.” I will always wonder if Sweets might have rolled his eyes, but I wasn’t looking and everyone was quiet; Dorothy gave way. I had just begun studying the Ballades and the Nocturne seemed easy by comparison. It’s not a difficult piece and I acquitted myself quite well. Dorothy was gracious, and then she sat down and played the Nocturne to perfection, and then some.

A handful of years later I ran into Dorothy at a bar. I had since moved to Los Angeles and used to meet Ernie Andrews at Tommy Tucker’s Playroom for drinks in the late afternoon when i got off work from my office gig. The Playroom was catty-corner to the old Parisian Room, a nightclub that used to sit on the south-west corner of La Brea and Washington. One day, Ernie and I were siting at the bar, and Dorothy came in and sat down next to Ernie. They started talking, and talking, and talking. She didn’t say a word to me and I was sure she didn’t even know me. Why should she? Two scotches later, Ernie excused himself for a moment and while he was gone, Dorothy leaned over and said, “So, are you still playing the F minor Nocturne.?” I nearly fell off my barstool and we remained friendly ’til the end.

This story never would have happened if I had ever heard Dorothy play Rachmaninoff’s Prelude In C Sharp Minor back in 1944. Take a listen from an Armed Forces Radio broadcast.

Scott’s reflections also include links to two YouTube videos: one from 1945, and one from 1993 at the White House. She was a show-woman from start to finish.

One thought on “Dorothy Donegan”

  1. Dorothy played at the New School at one of the Zoot Sims memorial parties they threw there annually for a while. She went on early and said she had to play and run to get to an evening gig. On her way out, as she passed the row I was sitting in, a young woman grabbed her hand and said, “Oh, Miss Donegan, you were WONDERFUL!” Dorothy grasped her hands, bowed her head for a moment and looked at her with an exaggerated expression of humility, and said, “Was I?” (Strong, slow accent on the “was’.)

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