Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee on 'No Ordinary Man' — Trans Jazz Great Billy Tipton

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday July 20, 2021

Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee.
Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee.  (Source:Chase Joynt/Instagram)

In "No Ordinary Man," Canadian co-directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt (a cisgender filmmaker and a trans documentarian, respectively) explore the life and legacy of one of jazz's greatest musicians, Billy Tipton — a pianist who was assigned female at birth, but lived for half a century as a man, and did it so successfully that not even his wives nor children knew he had been assigned female at birth. It was only at Tipton's sudden death at age 70 — due to an undiagnosed ulcer — that the unknown complexities around Tipton's life came to light.

The question of who Tipton was, given the jazz greats he associated with and the music he made, is fascinating in and of itself. His family life is also fascinating; we see his widow, Kitty Tipton, talk in archival footage — and hear her argue with biographer Diane Middlebrook in a tape recording — about how she never had so much as a hint of her husband's having been assigned female at birth. As might not have been the case with all musicians, Kitty — as well as Billy's son, Billy Tipton, Jr. — speak of him glowingly, with Kitty saying he was an "ideal husband" and Tipton, Jr. recalling how close they were. (Aside from being referenced in passing, Billy's two other sons are not part of this film.)

The film brings in commentators like Kate Bornstein and Zackary Drucker, among others, to examine trans history and the world's response to trans individuals. When Billy died in 1989 and the world got hold of his story, the response — as we're reminded here — was that Billy was "lying" about being a man. He was seen as an ambitious woman who had perpetuated a "deceit" in order to forge a career in a male profession. (Even Tipton, Jr., in an archival clip, seems to adopt this rationale, saying his father lived as a man in order to be able to do something he loved.)

The film looks at Billy's life and art through the perspectives of a number of actors who audition to play him (despite the fact that no such recreations from his life are part of the finished documentary). As they process different aspects of Billy's life and experience, the actors' perspectives change; as the film progresses, our perspectives, too, are invited to change.

Another commentator — African American musicologist Stephan Pennington — notes how history decides who matters and proceeds to erase or marginalize the people it decides do not. That process of erasure works not just in forgetting people, but in depicting them, even subtly, in a negative light: The media, and the world at large, we hear, reacted to Billy's story not with kindness or concern for Billy himself, but for the cisgender people around him; as one interviewee puts it, the question was, "What about the wife? What about the kids?"

"No Ordinary Man" leaves many questions unanswered, but they are questions that might not even have answers at this point. What's important is that the film is asking the right questions, in the right way. EDGE had the chance to ask a few questions of its own to Chin-Yee and Joynt. Here's what they had to tell us.

Actor Thomas McBee auditioning to play Billy Tipton.  (Source: Provided)

EDGE: How did you end up partnering for this project?

Aisling Chin-Yee: I think I once I answered [that question] "By Tinder," which made me laugh, anyway. It wasn't by Tinder, but that would have been fantastic. As the project kind of came together, we started building the team. First, it was me, and then it was Amos Mac, my co-writer. Soon after that, Chase joined the team, and it really was an organic connection through mutual friends and knowing each other's work and knowing each other from the community — or each other's names at least — and so it just made sense that we were going to collaborate on this. We're both Canadian; it's a small community. [This was our] first collab, but hopefully not the last.

Chase Joynt: Yeah. I think, you know, this story is what it is it's kind of a beautiful reflection of the Canadian film scene. It was kind of an easy endorsement across a network of friends, and a lightning bolt of connection from the beginning.

EDGE: Aisling, you have done both features and documentaries, as a producer as well as director. And Chase, your background is in documentaries, and you're also an assistant professor of gender studies at the University of Victoria. So it seems as though the natural choice for "No Ordinary Man" would be to make it as a documentary, but we see in the course of the film an audition process with several actors who are hoping to play the role of Billy Tipton, so I wonder if the project started off as a feature? Or maybe you intended to make a hybrid sort of film?

Aisling Chin-Yee: This iteration of the Billy Tipton story was always conceived as a documentary. We knew from the beginning, because there were no moving images of Billy Tipton to be found, that we were going to have to find a creative way to have his presence in the film. It wasn't just going to be some talking head telling you who he was. So that's when we started kind of thinking outside of the box on how we could show parts of Billy's life without just showing it or doing a recreation, or trying to pull from, you know, error-based archival material.

We conceived of the idea of making the process really transparent, with these biographical scenes of his life, [having] actors interpret them, and the conversations that we would have behind the camera and in front of the camera would be part of the narrative journey. That happened quite early. In a way, it could be like [there is a hybrid] element to it, but it's really just showing the process of making the film.

Chase Joynt: The other thing about being explicit for us is a reflection of the conversations that are being had about trans representation in the contemporary moment, and all the ways in which you hear the phrase, you know, "Who gets in the room?" or "Who is being cast?" We really, strategically thought, "How do we get as many people in the room as possible? How can we populate our film with a variety of different endpoints and identities and reflections on what trans masculinity means not only today but also if we look back historically?"

Billy Tipton, center, pictured with fellow jazz musicians.  (Source: Provided)

EDGE: What drew you to this particular story?

Chase Joynt: For me, as a trans person who is interested in trans history, Billy Tipton emerged online through lists of trans people you might or might not know from history. But the information that was available about him was the information that was produced by the mass media, so by the talk show and tabloid circuit, and you have the little splashy bio that most people — if they know anything at all — know about him. And it was a really exciting opportunity to think, "What could we know about Billy Tipton if his story was told through the eyes and experiences of trans people? What if we took control away from the mass media apparatus and interpret it in a new way?"

EDGE: Something the documentary points out about how trans people were seen in the past — and still today, in too many cases — is that trans people are accused of "lying" or "deceiving" others about who they are. When, of course, it's the exact opposite: Trans people are insisting on telling the truth.

Chase Joynt: You know, I think we are a part of the same media culture that is revealed in the film in the '80s and '90s. We still live in a world where the talk show exists as a matter of investigation to ask sometimes violently curious questions about people's lives and histories and bodies. We're not that far away from Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera being on Katie Couric, correcting ongoing questions about bodies and surgery. So, for all of the ways in which we want to talk about social change, we're still engaging the same foundational questions. For me, and I think alongside many of our participants in the film, we hope that "No Ordinary Man" is a way to hold up a mirror and turn those questions back on a culture and say, "Why are you asking those questions? What causes you to continue to be so invested in a story about trans people, that's anchored by [the idea of them] 'lying and deceiving?'"

EDGE: Aisling, when you hear it being said about Billy Tipton or other trans men that they had to dress as a man to succeed in a male-dominated industry, what's your reaction, being a woman yourself who works in a male-dominated industry?

Aisling Chin-Yee: I dress like a man, and it hasn't helped me, so I don't know.

[Laughter]

Yeah, it's really funny and interesting, because as a cisgender woman working in the industry, and as a woman of color in a very white male-dominated industry, there are frustrations and barriers and all of those things. But I don't think anybody with half a brain cell is going to think that by changing one's gender everything [is] going to be solved. Absolutely not. It was an absurd concept, and when it's presented as, "Oh, this is the key to success," or, "This is the key to having all injustices right," it's very naïve. And it's very white privilege, as well, because there's many, many complications and structures in the world that are unjust, especially in this industry, and we need to address all of them. I don't know if I'm answering your question, but I find it very entertaining to try.

[Laughter]

Influential jazz pianist Billy Tipton.  (Source: Provided)

Chase Joynt: I love the moment in the film when [musicologist] Stephan Pennington says if you wanted to be a woman playing jazz in this era, this was the time. There are plenty of examples of people making different choices. And, of course, we can look to the ways in which Tipton retired quite early and lived many decades after his music career, as the man he always said he was.

EDGE: It seems like the conversations you two must have had in the course of making this film — as a cisgender woman and a transgender man — must have been productive and insightful because you have such interesting perspectives.

Chase Joynt: Oh, yeah. We often talk behind closed doors about how these are the kinds of projects that are dream projects because we would do it even if we didn't make any money. You gotta follow the questions and the curiosities that keep you up at night because they're critical to all of our futures.

Aisling Chin-Yee: And it's something that was semi-planned, but it was also incredibly serendipitous that the trifecta that was myself, Amos, and Chase was [a] really interesting and amazing one. The three of us have very different experiences or come from different places. We all have sort of the same aesthetic and the same humor, and all of that kind of stuff, but it was really interesting to have that multitude of perspectives [as we were] talking through everything. And, of course, doing checks and balances on each other; like, "This is where my brain naturally goes here, but where does this land for you?" It was definitely a celebration of collaboration.

EDGE: Something that's striking in the archival material that you use in the film is a moment where Kitty, the widow of Billy Tipton, is talking to a biographer and underscoring that Billy Tipton was a wonderful husband, a wonderful father; she's got no doubt in her mind about Billy's masculinity and identity. You obviously included this moment because you felt it was important. How did it strike you viscerally to hear her defending her husband this way?

Chase Joynt: There are a couple of different ways to approach that question. The first is a real recognition of the work that Kitty Tipton and Billy Jr. did on the talk show circuit in the wake of Billy Sr.'s death, to protect his privacy. In a culture that was obsessed with getting to the "truth" of things, they resisted and held strong to a narrative that was: Billy Tipton was who he said he was, and that's the end of our story. And at that time, they're not working from a few decades' worths of cultural scripts where trans people have been vocal and visible and agitating for better treatment in the media. They're really moving from their own gut instincts.

And the other reason that we like to think out loud with Kitty Tipton, as we say, is because the question of how much the wives knew, how much the kids knew, is a question [that's] overwhelmingly motivated by non-trans people. Very few trans people care about this question. It is really a kind of outsider-in curiosity, and for all the ways in which we want to love and compliment Kitty, she serves as another way to think about the non-trans narratives that surround Tipton's story.

Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee.  (Source: Chase Joynt/Instagram)

EDGE: Billy Tipton had other children, too, but none of them except for Billy, Jr. appear in the film. Is there a story behind that?

Aisling Chin-Yee: Our choice of not having the other sons in the film was partly because they were quite estranged from their father by the time he passed away, and it was really Billy, Jr. that kind of held that mantle of carrying his father's legacy, and he had done so from the moment that he died; he was the one who was taking care of his father, and literally was there when his father passed away. He was the closest person to Billy Tipton. Thirty years later he's still carrying that responsibility. This was really Billy, Jr.'s place. It was predominantly because of that because the other brothers were not really involved in Billy's life, and or in touch with Kitty when she was alive.

EDGE: I don't know what it's like in Canada, but in the United States right now it feels very much like we have this insane, cynical assault on trans people and trans rights.

Chase Joynt: You know, trans people have always been the scapegoats of various socio-political issues and anxieties. It's not lost on us that are new emerges in the same year that 21 states are attempting to criminalize access to health care for young trans people. I think that, for us, the important part of the public work of the film is to recognize that these circumstances are ongoing and to foreground the ways in which the medical and legal systems continue to control and threaten trans people's ability to survive and thrive.

EDGE: Are there other trans people whose stories have been overlooked, or mischaracterized, whose stories you feel like you would also like to tell?

Aisling Chin-Yee: Well, Billy, you know, wasn't actually very forgotten in history. There's a lot of stuff about Billy Tipton, whether it is tribute bands, whether it's plays or musical acts... People have tried to make this film before, you know, before we came along. There's a reason why there's sort of this gravitation to this white, all-American musician playing jazz, and him having kind of this cherub face that looks like the all-American boy [from the] '50s. People look toward him like, "Let's ask these questions that this guy," when there was also, like, Wilmer "Little Axe" Broadnax, a gospel singer who came up at the same time, in the same part of the country, and toured in a lot of the same places — but as a Black man, singing gospel. [Like Billy Tipton, Wilmer Broadnax was assigned female at birth, but lived as a man. — Ed.] For all intents and purposes, Little Axe was actually more successful than Billy, but he's been forgotten by history, and it's like, "Why are we focusing on this white guy, and not Little Axe?" There's a lot of other questions that are packed into that.

There are lots of stories that can be told. Luckily, we're not the only people telling these stories.


"No Ordinary Man" is now in theaters.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.