His professional career began early, with Donato already having his first official recording at by the tender age of 15. Even more impressive was his participation in the legendary jam sessions of the Sinatra-Farney Fan Club. This allowed him to brush shoulders with prominent Brazilian musicians such as Johnny Alf and Jo Soares.
By this time Joao Donato had already switch to playing the piano primarily. Allegedly, this was done because Donato felt he had already mastered the accordion and wanted to focus on an instrument with limitless possibilities for musical invention.
Like many talented musicians Donato performed in the night clubs of Rio. It was during this period that he would be introduced to Joao Gilberto. Both seemed to have a strong understanding of each other musically and otherwise and their union would prove to be musically fruitful. More significant than the individual songs they made is their interaction which supposedly lead to the creation of the bossa nova rhythm.
According to Gilberto himself, the bossa nova rhythm that he played on his viola was conjured while listening to Donato’s piano playing. Though he was able to meet and collaborate with great musicians Donato’s time in Brazil would come to a premature end when he left for North America. His playing was said to be too complex and patrons complained that it was not suitable for dancing.
Though originally an act of desperation, Joao Donato’s decision to move to North America would prove to be a very positive one for the direction of his career. Almost instantly he was accepted by the American and Latin jazz acts of the time and was never short of playing and recording opportunities again. Most notably he would form a long-lived musical relationship with Bud Shank, another of his many musical collaborations.
A series of successful albums and tours establish Donato as a recognized name in the bossa nova and jazz world. Never one to limit himself, the pianist would choose to experiment with unique sounds and play in different genres ranging from samba to Afro-cuban rhythms. His selection of musical partners was equally diverse and he has worked with bossa nova artists young and old such as Nara Leao, Walter Wanderley, Roberto Menescal , Lisa Ono, Itharama Koorex, Caetano Veloso, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Leila Pinhero and many others.
In recognitions of his significant contribution to Brazilian culture in the form of music he was awarded the Medalha da Ordem do Mérito Cultural, the highest civilian honor in Brazil for cultural impact.