Dorothy Donegan’s Sequined Statements

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Dorothy Donegan (1922-1998) was an American pianist and singer who specialized in jazz, blues, and classical music. She is best known for her animated performances on the stride piano and owning Club Morocco in Los Angeles.

Just like her lively piano playing, Donegan’s on-stage attire was attention-grabbing. She wore curve-hugging, intricately decorated gowns that mirrored the fashions worn by Hollywood starlets. She didn’t skimp on her beauty routine either. Her hair was styled in curly or voluminous bobs that were often accented with a flower or turban.

Born in Chicago, Donegan performed in jazz clubs at a young age. During these shows, she developed her stage attire. “My mother would get me a pretty good dress, you know. Then, you could get a whole outfit for $15,” the singer said to Jeannie Cheatham for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program. “The shoes were $2 or $3. We’d go to Rothschild’s. I didn’t know a thing about Neiman Marcus, ‘needless markups.” 

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In 1945 Donegan received a call from Hollywood. “They (MGM)  paid our way there and gave me I think $3000 a week … Gene Rodgers and I played against each other. He was a very good pianist. Cab (Calloway) was directing and shaking his hair.” 

An example of her style is seen in a 1944 performance with Calloway and his band in the musical comedy film, “Sensations of 1945.” Donegan wears a long-sleeved gown with a deep V-neck and slightly squared shoulders. The white coloring of the dress is contrasted by gold sequins dotted at the neckline and in spirals around her wrists, which accentuates her piano playing.

Despite being a famous musician, Donegan often challenged sexism in the male-dominated jazz industry. “There shouldn’t be a separate role for women and a separate role for men. They either can perform or they can’t.”

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Although this may have shaped public opinion of her as difficult or overbearing, the musician knew her talents and worth. Her persistence was mentioned in a February 9, 1961 edition of Jet. The passage reads, “Jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan and her retort to the New York Roundtable Club owner after he suggested ordering some elevated shoes for her to compensate for the high ceiling Dorothy complained about: “How about some elevated money?”

As she entered her later years, Donegan combined her signature razzle-dazzle with streetwear. When she performed at the White House in 1993, she wore “a silver coat and a Chanel copy baseball hat,” and “a bugle beaded jet top and a black sequined skirt” with a bangle bracelet around her left wrist.

When not performing in the 1990s, Donegan received a National Endowment of the Arts “American Jazz Masters” fellowship (1992) and an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University (1994). In 1997 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away at the age of 76 in 1998.

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Throughout her career, Donegan faced hardships for being an opinionated woman in a male-dominated industry. Instead of giving up, she continued to shine with the help of some sparkle.  

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