3 min

His legacy lives on

Billy Tipton inspires a new generation

Credit: Xtra West files

A long night of driving on the East Coast after a busy tour might intimidate some musicians, but Jessica Lurie of The Tiptons saxophone quartet, takes it in stride. “It wasn’t too bad,” she laughs, on the phone from her home in Brooklyn. “It hasn’t set into black ice conditions just yet.”

Though the road may be clear for Lurie now, it hasn’t always been an easy journey. Pursuing a career in jazz music can be difficult, and the challenges are greater for women who play non-traditional instruments in a male-dominated profession.

So, when four Seattle women formed a saxophone quartet in the late 1980s, they named their band after a jazz pioneer who challenged convention for over 50 years: Billy Tipton.

Billy Tipton (born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City in 1914) adopted a new name and identity in the 1930s, in part to find employment playing saxophone and piano at jazz clubs.

Living fulltime as a man, Tipton worked for decades as a professional musician and booking agent. In 1989, he died of a bleeding ulcer in Spokane, Washington. Only then was his biological sex discovered, to the astonishment of his three adopted sons and the five women he lived with at various times, including his legal wife, Kitty Kelly. To this day, his memory lives on for many as a pioneer in the transgender community.

Tipton was “someone who devoted [his] life to being who [he] wanted to be,” says Lurie, who joined the Tiptons in 1992. “His determination to love who he wanted and live how he wanted makes him a powerful role model for us.”

Lurie (who identifies as straight herself) adds, “it’s a really important reminder of how hard it can be to live the life you want.

“I had no role models for women saxophone players when I was growing up,” she continues. “My primary instrument was flute, but I took up saxophone in college because it was louder,” she laughs.

Now, she says, the members of The Tiptons (Lurie and fellow saxophonists Amy Denio, Sue Orfield and Tobi Stone, with percussionist Elizabeth Pupo-Walker) are happy to provide “a new generation” of role models for women and aspiring musicians. By teaching basic composition workshops and performing in elementary schools, The Tiptons expose younger children to the joys of playing jazz. “Seeing us play is really great for the young girls,” Lurie says.

And women audiences around the world respond to The Tiptons’ skilled performances. “We know when other women see us play that it’s powerful,” Lurie says, reminiscing about the “electric energy” of shows at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, WimminFest, and Lilith Fair. “Seeing other women on stage, holding their own and playing solos-that’s really exciting for the audience.”

So, 70 years after Tipton started performing, is the music business less discriminatory? “It’s still pretty male dominated,” says Lurie, noting that there’s still a “very small percentage” of women jazz musicians playing professionally. In one recent festival performance, Lurie was the only woman musician out of 25 featured acts. “Couldn’t those guys get a little creative?” she says.

Later, Lurie acknowledges that the music business is slowly changing. “I feel that I’ve been very fortunate,” she states. She says she hasn’t encountered too much “dude attitude” even after years of playing professionally.

“But the common compliment is ‘you play like a man,'” she laughs. “And with the Tiptons, people say, ‘wow, if I close my eyes, I wouldn’t know it was women playing.'”

But Lurie refuses to be discouraged by sexism. “The talent’s pretty good for a bunch of gals,” she says, joking about The Tiptons.

And those “gals” have been busy. In the past decade, The Tiptons have recorded six CDs (including their latest release Tsunami), toured Europe 10 times, and performed on stage with the Indigo Girls, Zap Mama and Iva Bittova.

Now, this busy band is coming to Vancouver Nov 21 to showcase a mix of jazz, funk and rock arrangements with a distinctly “groovy” beat.

Next year, the band will head back to Europe to record a seventh CD. The incentive for such hard work? “We just love what we do, and we’re fortunate that we can do it,” says Lurie, expressing a humble sentiment that Billy Tipton would surely be proud of.


The Tiptons.

Nov 21, 8 pm.

The Western Front, 303 8th Ave.

Tickets: $16-$20.

At Little Sister’s, Women in Print, Urban Empire, The Western Front.