William Lee Tipton: a lesson in sacrifice and dedication

How dedicated are you to your dreams? What sacrifices would you be willing to make in order to achieve them?

For most of us it isn’t even close to what Billy Tipton did in order to play in a jazz band.

Billy Tipton was born December 29, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His parents named the new baby Dorothy Lucille Tipton. The Tipton’s were better off than most, the father was a pilot and the mother a homemaker. But when Dorothy was only four her parents divorced and she went to live with a wealthy aunt in Kansas City. The move to Kansas was  a key factor in developing Dorothy’s proclivity towards jazz- her aunt taught her piano, and there was a lively jazz presence in 1920s Kansas City.⁵ In high school Dorothy was drawn to music. She studied the saxophone and piano, but being female she was not allowed to play in the high school band.⁴ The pro-circuit, she found, was just as unwelcoming to a girl.

But Dorothy was determined.  If girls couldn’t play, well then she would pose as a boy. Though only around 5′ 4″, hippy, baby faced, and high-voiced she was determined. By binding her breasts and wearing a codpiece, Dorothy pulled off her on-stage ruse and convinced people she was male. By the late 1940’s, she decided to fully commit to living as a man. She moved to the west coast and took the name William Lee Tipton.³

For 40 years Billy Tipton played in, headed-up, and acted as a booking agent for jazz bands, primarily on the west coast. Tipton turned down several large contracts which hindsight indicates was likely for fear of being found out. Ultimately Billy lived a successful middle class life. He was involved in his community, the PTA, and was a scout leader.  No one suspected he was a she.

Irony or emancipation?

Billy Tipton died on January 21, 1989 in Spokane, Washington. For the bulk of a lifetime the musician’s sex was kept hidden. Tipton’s sons, yes, he had three, adopted, found out their father’s secret only after an autopsy was done. Tipton had gone to extreme lengths to masquerade as a man in order to play the jazz he so loved.

But was he having to be what he was not to become what he was, or did jazz’s demand that musicians be male give Tipton the incentive he needed to live as he preferred? After all, Billy’s first female love entanglement was engaged in before Dorothy became Billy. In her Tipton biography, Diane Middleton explores the question of what might have prompted Tipton’s male gender patterning:

Other questions rise in the wake of what can be learned about Billy’s sexual practices. His former wife Kitty assumed that because there was no sex in their marriage, there was no sex in Billy’s story… But Kitty was only the last woman in Billy’s life to be called Mrs. Tipton — the last of at least five. At least one of these women knew that Billy was a woman; at least two of them made love with Billy for years thinking that Billy was a man. What is really the “wrong” thing in Billy’s story, then — deceitfulness? Gaining erotic satisfaction from women who would not have permitted the same intimacies if they had known Billy’s sex? And what did Billy want? What was in it for her when she chose not only to adopt the role of a man but to play it in every scene, including those we think of as the most confiding?²

In a 1989 Associated Press article, Scott Miller, Tipton’s oldest son, is quoted as having said,”Now I know why I couldn’t get him to a doctor. He had so much to protect and I think he was just tired of keeping the secret.” Though at one time fairly successful, Miller said that when his father died he had very little outside of a heavy weariness.¹

Billy Tipton’s exceptional story and determination are the inspiration for this particular work.


¹2017 NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/02/us/musician-s-death-at-74-reveals-he-was-a-woman.html

²1998 D. Middlebrook, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, Houghton Mifflin Company



⁵ 2012 C. Park, Billy Lee Tipton (1914-89) – Jazz Musician, http://lgbthistoryproject.blogspot.com/2012/02/billy-lee-tipton-1914-89-jazz-musician.html

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