How the documentary No Ordinary Man reframes the story of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton
The collaborative Canadian film adds rich context to a story that's never felt fully told
"How would I summarize Billy Tipton? He was a trans masculine jazz musician. Pretty simple."
Actor Marquise Vilsón shrugs at the end of his answer in the new documentary No Ordinary Man, a little nonchalant about the simplicity. But he and fellow actors, artists, experts and creators of the film know that, when Tipton died at the age of 74 in 1989, inclusive vocabulary and visibility didn't exist for the session musician.
Tipton was born in Oklahoma City, first taking piano lessons as a kid. The story that was told for decades after his death was that Tipton started to wear male clothing to perform in a male-dominated industry in his teens, eventually deciding to present as male full time. Tipton became a go-to session musician, performing and touring in both big and small bands, even playing with Duke Ellington.
Tipton adopted three sons with nightclub dancer Kitty Kelly, and died in the arms of Billy Tipton Jr. from an untreated peptic ulcer in his mid-70s. It's said that when paramedics tried to resuscitate Tipton, they discovered he had been assigned female at birth, though Tipton had never publicly referenced himself as trans while he was alive. A slew of salacious media coverage followed, including incredibly insensitive interviews with a grieving Kelly and Billy Jr., and a cringeworthy episode of E! Mysteries and Scandals with host/gossip columnist A.J. Benza that called Tipton a "jazzy gender-bender."
No Ordinary Man, co-written by Amos Mac and Montreal-based filmmaker Aisling Chin-Yee and co-directed by Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, reframes Billy Tipton's story, weaving together the few recordings the musician left behind with performances by, and interviews with, trans actors and experts who have all been touched by Tipton in their lifetimes. The filmmakers also include lengthy visits with Billy Tipton Jr., which are particularly moving. The project is "deeply grounded in collaboration across identity positions, across genres, across styles and historical time periods," as Joynt describes.
This project was a really great chance for us to think out loud with trans culture makers about the significance of Billy Tipton in the contemporary moment.- Chase Joynt, co-director
"As a trans man interested in trans history, Billy Tipton has always existed in community folklore and storytelling," says Joynt. "And joining this project and being a part of its construction was really an opportunity for me to think about who gets to tell these stories and how the story of Billy Tipton is one that was always controlled by the mainstream media."
"This project was a really great chance for us to think out loud with trans culture makers about the significance of Billy Tipton in the contemporary moment," he continues.
Tipton only left two recorded albums of music, so there was very little to go on. Joynt, Chin-Yee and Mac were acutely aware that this documentary would be a significant contribution to Tipton's legacy, and wanted to pull in a diverse set of perspectives as well as a complement to the music that Tipton had left behind. Vilsón (who is also in the 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure) appears alongside musicologist Stephan Pennington, professor/author C. Riley Snorton, professor/author Susan Stryker, artist/producer Zackary Drucker and many others for a moving and vulnerable portrayal of a man who lived a full life, and who lost control of his story as soon as he died.
"One of the things that I think we love about the creative journey of our project is that, you know, number 1: there's no moving images of him," explains Joynt. "Number 2: there's no diary. We don't get a kind of archival text from Tipton's hand about how he felt about himself or his surroundings. And so the music becomes a diaristic archival text that we get to treat as is. I love the interpretive possibilities of music, or of finding his voice in family recordings because it's open to interpretation, but it is an authenticity to him that doesn't need to be overdetermined by our historical re-readings."
We tried to find these little marking points where Billy comes through, and to kind of have him as a joyful presence and as a soulful presence rather than him being kind of a ghostly presence, you know?- Aisling Chin-Yee, co-writer and co-director
Chin-Yee adds that they used Tipton's music as score — the song "Willow Weep for Me," for example, is used to steer the story back to Spokane, where Tipton eventually moved, and to a scene with Billy Tipton Jr. — but also "as his personality." The number that opens the film, a live recording of Tipton introducing his music and playing at the Ranch Inn in Elko, Nev., in 1955, is a particularly memorable choice.
"We tried to find these little marking points where Billy comes through, and to have him as a joyful presence and as a soulful presence rather than him being kind of a ghostly presence, you know?"
Halifax singer and composer Rich Aucoin made perfect sense as the film's score composer to Chin-Yee, who was born in Nova Scotia and knew the singer through arts circles. Aucoin's piano-playing abilities, personality and musical sensibilities were exactly what everyone was looking for. He could do the jazz piano side, but also fill in the "atmospheric, experimental" pieces, as Aucoin describes them. He time-stretched and reverbed a lot of the piano using modern production techniques.
"So sometimes it doesn't quite sound like a piano is making the music, but it's my mom's piano that I grew up learning to play the piano on," he says.
Aucoin adds that he almost wrote himself out of a job with the first draft of music, using mostly only Tipton's work and a handful of his own pieces.
"[The film] already had such an amazing weight to it, even in its rough, earlier stages and with the temp music that [Chin-Yee] had picked out," he explains. "I was kind of blown away by the film and a little nervous at saying yes to working on it at first [laughs], because my first thought was, 'This is so good, I don't want to screw this up.'"
But once he understood that Chin-Yee and Joynt were looking for a score that could stretch between emulation and tonal support, Aucoin went his usual, hardworking route: he produced more than 128 musical cues for a film that used 25.
"To me, the thread line through everything was this really deep, romantic emotion in the music," says Aucoin. "'Under a Blanket of Blue,' the first time I heard that, I just wrote the directors being like, 'This needs to end the film!'"
"The other thing, too, that I think was really valuable for us to think about is there's some soundtrack that's already embedded in our project through this sensational tabloid footage, that incredibly high drama, apocalyptic, you know?" says Joynt. "A.J.Benza for example [from E! Mysteries and Scandals]. And so one of the things that I loved about Aisling and Rich's conversation, too, was we don't need to create high-drama stakes for a story about a trans subject. How do we build out the emotional texture that really shows much more variation and let the sort of hilarious, hyperbolic music of the past speak for itself?"
Another new musical detail that makes its way into the film, over the closing credits, is a collaboration between Patrick Watson and Toronto singer Lane Webber, on a new version of Watson's song "Man Like You," from his 2009 album Wooden Arms.
"One of the things that I so deeply appreciate about that track is it's kind of a throw to Billy's collaborative style historically as well," says Joynt. "And, you know, [Watson] inviting this young non-binary BIPOC artist from Toronto to collab on the remaking of a song — I mean, in some ways, Billy is collabing to remake songs throughout his entire life. And so there's some nice synergy there for me that feels like an unexpected sweetness."
You can watch No Ordinary Man at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival until Sept. 24.