Billy Tipton is a jazz artist of legend. Billy played with some of jazz’s greatest like Duke Ellington, or Benny Goodman’s Band, For many reasons, Billy has forged a path in jazz as a pianist, saxophone player, bandleader, and one of the earliest “trans-masculine” personalities to gain notoriety. The new documentary “No Ordinary Man” seeks to explore the life of one of America’s jazz greats that you probably never heard of before.
Billy Tipton’s career started in the early 1930’s with the nickname “Tippy”. “In order to fit in with the other band members” (according to the documentary) Billy started to bind his breasts, dressing permanently in male clothes, and took on the name of Billy Lee Tipton. Within a few years, Tipton was living as a male in both the public and private sectors of his life. After several relationships with women, he settled into a long-term relationship with Kitty Kelly. Although never legally married, the couple lived as man and wife for all intense and purposes, and did LEGALLY adopt four children. It wasn’t until age 74, when Tipton had a hemorrhaging peptic ulcer and died, that his family first found out that Billy was born a female.
The documentary explores the life of Billy Tipton as a talented musician and a trans artist pioneer. There is not much known about his early years except that he was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma. The film establishes the career of such a man, as well as showing the way Billy lived HIS life as a male. His band mates all believed he was a man. His families believed he WAS a Male and have protested emphatically they were not aware of anything different. There are many clips of talk/schlock shows from the late 1980’s that show/exploit the ex-wife and the child (Billy Tipton, Jr) that was present at his death, trying to understand how the family could not have know.
The documentary, No Ordinary Man, is interesting when it discusses the life of Billy Tipton. Since not much is known about his earlier life, interview fillers are used that can be informative, but often, slows down the pacing of the film. The documentary also brings trans actors auditioning for a film biography on Billy Tipton (the film’s title is not disclosed at this time who readily give their own insight.) While this is a unique way of showing insight, it doesn’t lead to very much within the documentary itself. Several breakout stars from the trans community (Marquise Vilson, Scott Turner Schofield, Susan Stryker, C. Riley Snorton, and Thomas Page McBee) give their own personal views on this historical musician. They discuss the different perspectives history has given to Billy Tipton’s life. Was Billy a ‘heterosexual’ woman that dressed as a male so that she could play professionally in a jazz band? Was Billy a ‘masculine lesbian’ where cross-dressing was part of the individual’s style? Most seem to recognize that Billy lived his life as a man; he dressed as one, took on every role, and adopted four children after ‘marrying’ a woman, thus making him one of the earliest visible trans masculine people in American history. Many of those interviewed discuss their own journeys of how they found their own true identities. While these stories of discovery are interesting, they distract from the focus of the film (Billy Tipton’s life) and sometimes noticeably slow down the pacing.
A controversial book (Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton) by Diane Wood Middlebrook was published in 1998. While originally written with the approval of Kitty Kelly, the family has pulled support from the book. Others interviewed in the documentary make their own opinions known about the representation of Billy’s life.
Billy Tipton was, undoubtedly, part of the GLBT community. Just how much is up to the viewer to decide. It would be interesting to see an actual full-feature film on this jazz legend’s life.
Documentary – NO ORDINARY MAN
Released in theatres July 16, 2021