Hidden gender

Billy Tipton was a Fifties jazzman. Or so he led people to believe. And thereby hangs a play
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Billy Tipton was an American jazz saxophonist and piano player who played swing with the big bands of the Thirties and Forties. Though he was a journeyman musician rather than a star soloist, he performed with one of the greatest of all the major bands led by the master trombonist Jack Teagarden. In the Fifties, when big bands could no longer support themselves, Tipton formed his own trio, travelling from his home in Spokane, Washington to play nightclub engagements throughout the West. For the next 30 years, as a jobbing musician taking whatever work was available, Tipton seemed a typical example of his breed. At least until January 1989, when, aged 74, he died of a stomach ulcer, and an extraordinary secret was revealed. Billy Tipton was a woman.

The news, delivered by the owner of the funeral home, came as something of a shock to his three adopted sons. "He'll always be dad," Tipton's son John Clark was reported as saying. "But I think he should have left something behind for us, something that would have explained the truth." Tipton's widow, Kitty Oakes, who had separated from him 10 years earlier, refused to talk about the mystery beyond saying: "He gave up everything. There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician."

Tipton, born Wilhemina rather than William, began his/ her masquerade in the Thirties, as a means of furthering a musical career at a time when women were more acceptable as vocalists than instrumentalists. Even so, there were plenty of precedents for successful female jazz musicians: Lil Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams were incorporated into some of the best bands of the time; Teagarden's sister Norma appeared as a piano soloist with her brother's band, and there were all-female orchestras like the Sweethearts of Rhythm and Ira Rae Hutton's Melodears. Whatever, Tipton evidently strapped her breasts as well as her sax for the 50-odd years of her career. While it may not be entirely coincidental that her employer, Jack Teagarden, was a notorious lush, Tipton somehow managed to live life on the road as a man, in a milieu where bandsmen would piss out of a coach window as a matter of course.

With the luxury of hindsight, the grainy newsprint photo of Tipton, posed in a publicity still with the trio, that appeared alongside the story of her death in Time magazine, now looks like nothing so much as a portrait of a female drag-artist with a JFK haircut and a cheesy grin. The group's drummer, Dick O'Neill, recalled at the time of Tipton's death that some listeners would joke that his employer's baby face and high singing voice seemed too feminine to belong to a man. "But I would almost fight anyone who said that," recalled O'Neill. "I never suspected a thing."

Though the example of Tipton appears to test the credulity of her fellow jazz musicians to the limit, it also has a bearing on the sexual politics of a genre where the freedom of the music is rarely matched by a corresponding fluidity in matters of sexual orientation. While a number of celebrated jazz musicians have been, and are, gay, coming out has always been a serious matter of breaking the macho code, and consequently a course of action very few have taken.

The Tipton case, which at the time attracted only a couple of columns in the New York Times and Time magazine ("He never went swimming with his three adopted sons" was Time's take on the subject), remains perplexing, like a jazz version of the Martin Guerre myth with an added gender-bending twist. The son's call for explanation has also been heeded, albeit in a roundabout way. The film director Robert Altman has commissioned a script about the mystery, and The Slow Drag, an off-Broadway play based on Tipton's story by the writer Carson Kreitzer, receives its British premiere at Soho's Freedom Theatre this Thursday.

For Kreitzer, the figure of Tipton is less a matter of specifics than of symbolism. "The play is inspired by him," she says, "but otherwise it's completely a work of fiction. The story fascinated me, but it's so easy to read something like that and make a judgement. He chose to die of a bleeding ulcer rather than reveal his gender, and the question for the play has to be how that could be the right answer."

In the play, Billy Tipton becomes Johnny Christmas, a kind of Everyman/ Everywoman figure. "He dies for our sins," Kreitzer says, "believing that you can't be a woman and love a woman, or that you can't be a woman and play jazz." Kreitzer deliberately distanced herself from the details of the Tipton story, she says, in order to use it "as a lens to look at the story of boy meets girl. Sexuality has a lot to do with it, but it is a love story in the end."

To prepare for the part of Tipton/ Christmas, the actress Nikki Slade has been spending time looking at old Hollywood movies. "I've been watching Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, studying how to light a cigarette and how to stand," she says. "For the purposes of the play, the character bases his outer demeanour on the movies. It's very much about exteriors and struggling to contain the conflict of suppressing the woman within; there's a lot of pain inside, which is symbolised by the stomach ulcer, and which keeps leaking through, like the sense that he is really a woman, and how exhausting living that lie is."

At a rehearsal last week, the director Lisa Forrell explained that, for her, "the Tipton figure becomes a man for the love of the music; her gender change is not motivated by some transsexual problem. In becoming a man she adopts the stereotypical male characteristics of Hollywood, and her belief in real love is a Hollywood belief. When her wife leaves her, it's because she is fulfilling all these male stereotypes to the exclusion of anything else. I truly believe that for many years Billy Tipton really believed this, living her own lie, like women who have false pregnancies. She becomes a man who wants to fulfil the perfect American dream."

Meanwhile, the fragments of the real Billy Tipton story continue to resound within the history of jazz. Born in Oklahoma, she was brought up in Kansas City at exactly the same time as Charlie Parker. Perhaps Wilhemina participated in the same after-hours cutting sessions that helped hone Parker's genius. Or did she feel disbarred because of the twin burdens of her race and her sex? When the secret she had kept for all those years finally exploded in the form of a stomach ulcer, the response seems, in retrospect, rather underwhelming. "Now I know why I couldn't get him to a doctor," her eldest adopted son said on her death. "He had so much to protect and I think he was just tired of keeping the secret." The cheesy JFK grin of the photo remains to mock us all.

`The Slow Drag' is at the Freedom Theatre, Wardour Street, London W1 (0171-734 0122) to 15 March