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RJ Smith

RJ Smith is author most recently of American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank. He’s been an editor at Cincinnati magazine and Los Angeles magazine. He has written for GQ, the New York Times, Spin, the Village Voice, Yeti and more. He is currently working on a biography of Chuck Berry while he raises chickens in Cincinnati.
"Deep Cover: After Hours with Dorothy Donegan" Dorothy Donegan was a striking figure on the Los Angeles nightclub scene of the 1940s and ‘50s. She defined a rollicking style of piano playing that had one hand on boogie-woogie mayhem and another on cocktail lounge precision. She came to life before an audience more than in the recording studio, and before an audience she met resistance, because Donegan was all-in on demonstrating to audiences who she was. She could be precise and proper one moment and then turn salty as Dinah Washington the next. She gleefully signified on her material, talked back to audiences, and then winked at them to let them in on the joke. She liked show business. Donegan was a room-sized personality for whom there was not always space in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That led to problems, as did her demand to be paid as much as male musicians. There weren’t many mentors around; she helped invent a new role for female instrumentalists. This presentation will spotlight the character she played and place her in a tradition of pianists from Cleo Brown to Mary Lou Williams to Nina Simone, virtuosi who struggled with genre strictures and expectations from male club owners. It will ultimately place Donegan in a 1980s hyper-masculine context and explore intriguing connections she had to the birth of West Coast rap. I want to contrast the space she fought for with the space the world made for gangsta rappers, and ponder the gender-normative aspects of each moment.