Born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 6, 1922, Dorothy Donegan was trained as a classical pianist, Donegan was an eclectic virtuoso who played stride, boogie-woogie, bop, swing and classical piano styles, sometimes all in the same chorus. She started piano lessons at the age of 8 in her hometown, taking lessons from Alfred M. Simms and later, Walter Dyett (who also taught Dinah Washington, Gene Ammons and Von Freeman among others).
She made her first recordings in 1942 and was sensational in the film "Sensations of 1945" with Cab Calloway but didn't catch on. She was popular, however, in the clubs around her native Chicago. She became a protege of Art Tatum who called her, "the only woman who could make me practice." Donegan would say of Tatum, "(He) was supposed to be blind... I know he could see women."
She was the first African-American to perform in Chicago's Orchestra Hall in 1943....