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Jazz Musicians

Once the jazz scene ceased to offer a countercultural haven for homosexuals, the interplay between jazz and homosexual subcultures eventually vanished. Moreover, very little is known about the homosexuality or bisexuality of jazz musicians. Whereas blues singing was a predominantly female (and often bisexual or lesbian) musical activity, jazz like other forms of American musical life was male dominated from the beginning.

The jazz scene was not hospitable to female instrumentalists or to effeminate or openly homosexual men. Openly lesbian or bisexual women initially fared better as singers. In the jazz subculture, male musical prowess served as an important basis for attracting women. Duke Ellington himself noted that as a young man "I was invited to many parties, where I learned that when you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano." To this day, only a few jazz musicians are publicly known to be homosexual.

Billy Strayhorn

The most historically significant jazz musician known to be homosexual is composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), who for most of his adult life worked closely with Duke Ellington. For many years, acknowledgment of his work was obscured by his relationship to Ellington, and some of his work was credited to and copyrighted by Ellington.

One of the most accomplished composers in jazz and popular music, Strayhorn is the author of "Take the 'A' Train," "Lush Life," "Chelsea Bridge," and "Something to Live For." From 1937 until his death in 1967, Strayhorn worked for and collaborated with Ellington. He served as Ellington's intimate partner in the composition of many of the Ellington band's most important songs and arrangements. They often passed a work back and forth, each contributing phrases and reworking others.

Ellington's support for Strayhorn and his acceptance of Strayhorn's homosexuality was invaluable. David Hajdu, Strayhorn's biographer, shows how Strayhorn was able to choose not to hide his homosexuality because of Ellington's unquestioning acceptance. Ellington's son, Mercer, told David Hajdu in Vanity Fair that he had always assumed that Strayhorn and his father had "experimented" at some point.

Billy Tipton

Jazz musician Billy Tipton (1914-1989) played saxophone and piano from the 1930s until 1958 when he retired and settled down to work as an entertainment agent in Spokane, Washington.

Born Dorothy Tipton in 1914, Billy lived most of his life as a man. As a young woman, Dorothy first appeared on the jazz scene in Kansas City during the late 1920s. She was moderately talented, but nevertheless after numerous auditions failed to get any bookings in the local clubs, apparently because she was female. Finally, in 1933, with the help of her cousin, she taped her chest, cut her hair, and wore a suit to her next audition. She was immediately hired as Billy Tipton and lived as a man for the rest of her life.

Tipton played saxophone with several well-known bands throughout the late 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s, he started his own band, The Billy Tipton Trio, and made two recordings. Eventually Tipton's band worked as the house band at a nightclub in Reno, backing such well-known performers as Liberace.

In 1958 Tipton retired from the jazz scene and moved to Spokane, where he married and raised a family. He was revealed to be a female only after his death, when a coroner's autopsy was performed.

Peggy Gilbert

Another saxophone player, Peggy Gilbert (1905-2007), also challenged discrimination against women in the music business.

Although Gilbert had a career that spanned some 80 years, she reached the zenith of her popularity during the 1930s and 1940s when she headed several all-women jazz bands. "If she had been a man, she would have been considered one of the great American band leaders," contends music historian Jeannie Pool, but the music establishment "kept dismissing girl players as a novelty act, a freak show."

After World War II, the popularity of all-women bands declined and Gilbert took a day job. In 1974, however, she founded the Dixie Belles, a band composed of older women musicians, that had considerable success after a 1981 appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and continued to perform until 1994.

The Bebop Revolution

The bebop revolution of the late 1940s and 1950s dramatically affected the relationship of jazz to its audience and players. Bebop's dissonance, complex rhythms, and free solo improvisation created a musical style that dramatically broke with the swing music that had dominated the 1930s and 1940s jazz idiom.

Bebop broke the connection between jazz and dance music. It also reinforced the masculinist sexual attitudes that exacerbated an environment already unfriendly to both women and homosexuals.

When Melba Liston, a pianist and arranger, was hired by Dizzy Gillespie, Linda Dahl recounts, the men in his band complained that he had "sent all the way to California for a bitch." He then asked one of his men to hand out the music he had written for the band. He told the man to "'Pass it out to these muthafuckas and let me see what a bitch you are.' [Gillespie] said, 'Play the music, and I don't want to hear no fuckups.' And of course they got about two measures and fell out and got all confused and stuff. And Dizzy said, 'Now who's the bitch?' "

Though Gillespie had insisted on hiring Liston, such a hostile atmosphere was not conducive to the open acceptance of men or women who were sexually unconventional.

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