Lost Notes: The identity and mystery of jazz pianist Billy Tipton

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The resounding theme of this season of Lost Notes has been identity and its deconstruction. The season looks at who musicians were and/or who they wanted to be. On the latest episode of Lost Notes, music writer and NPR contributor Allyson McCabe explores the mystery of jazz pianist Billy Tipton.

The definitive conclusion about Tipton's fascinating story is that there isn't really any way to come to any definitive conclusions about Billy Tipton's story. If anything, the story reminds us that the notion of identity is a fluid construct that flies in the face of our desire to control it.

McCabe brilliantly and honestly tells the story, and in the process resists her own spin and just lets Tipton be Tipton. The story brought up not only questions about Tipton, but about what the story tells us about us...so I asked McCabe a couple of them.

KCRW: Given that Billy was more or less a journeyman musician, talented but not particularly famous, how did you first encounter Billy Tipton?

AM: I first encountered Billy Tipton when I was in college—this was just a few years after he died. As I talk about in the episode, the late 1980s/early 1990s was a very charged period, and it also was charged for me personally as someone who was just beginning to come into my queer identity. The academic conversation around trans identity was still in its infancy at the time. Scholars where more focused on exploring gender performativity and butch/femme dynamics. I was very intrigued by Billy, who did not seem to fit neatly into these frameworks. All these years later, I’m still intrigued!

KCRW: There are moments where people (his wife even) claim to not know Billy's secret, however Billy playfully hints at his secret in public/on stage. Do you think that more people knew and were merely feigning surprise than leading on? Or did Billy's comfort with his chosen identity simply not make it a question in people's mind? Or, wilder still perhaps (as is raised in the episode), do you think that I'm projecting Billy's comfort onto Billy because I'd like to imagine that Billy was happy with his truth?  

AM: I believe the answer is: All of the above. On a meta-level, one of my goals for the episode was to invite listeners to think about how much of the way we understand the identity of others is a matter of perception, fantasy, and desire.

KCRW: Through the prism of our current climate there is also this fascinating dilemma of "labeling" Billy, when the very nature of Billy is an affront to labeling. Why do we resist the tendency to accept others on their terms? Why do we (particularly Americans) need to designate/label things?  

AM: I’m not sure the tendency to label is particularly current or American—either/or thinking is a form of control. It works to uphold norms. But it also often fails to capture complexity and nuance, or reflect reality.

KCRW: There have been books and plays and you mention Silas Howard's working on a film version of Billy's story. From the clip, it sounds like it'll be really well done. But, if you could dream up a particular Director/Actor pairing for this story...what would it be? *I'd wanna see David Lynch direct Mireille Enos or Robin Weigert.  

AM: Your picks are very interesting. There are a lot of entry points into this story and many directors and actors who would do different things with it. Silas actually began working on developing Billy’s story several years ago, and I know it’s his hope to return to it. It’s my hope, too. Silas is trans, and he’s an award winning director, writer, and executive producer. He’s hugely talented, and deeply conversant with Billy’s story. In the episode we get only a brief tease of the film-- I want to see where that goes!

KCRW: BONUS QUESTION (I've been asking every contributor this): What's an album that saved your life?  

AM: So many albums have saved my life at various points. But I would have to say David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s a matter of trivia for music nerds like me that “Starman” was a late addition to the album, but the song was on heavy rotation on the radio when I was in high school. Bowie’s message of hope and humanity became my lifeline. He helped me to project myself into a future that I wasn’t able to fully imagine.