He recorded for the first time with Altamiro Carrilho. Soon after he joined a band led by violinist Fafá Lemos that played in Brazilian nightclubs. His first solo album came out in 1953. He led the bossa nova band Os Namorados which performed songs such as “Tenderly”.
Donato became arranger and pianist for the band Garotos da Lua and was joined by João Gilberto. After moving to São Paulo, he played in the Luís César Orchestra and the band Os Copacabanas. In 1956 he recorded an album for Odeon that was produced by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Donato wrote “Minha Saudade” with Gilberto, and it became a hit. In an interview during the 1970s, Gilberto said Donato inspired the creation of bossa nova.
Jobs at nightclubs decreased when customers said they couldn’t dance to his music. Musicians, too, found the music difficult to learn. Unable to find work in his home country, he left Brazil after his friend Nanai, a former member of Os Namorados, offered him a job in the U.S. During the next decade, he recorded with Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Astrud Gilberto, Bud Shank, and Cal Tjader. His hits included “A Rã,” and “Caranguejo”, both recorded by Sergio Mendes. His album A Bad Donato (1970) was recorded with jazz bassist Ron Carter He was music director for Gal Costa in 1974.