Singing the Low-Down, Down-Low Blues

Women in jazz can sing about their same-sex experiences, while men tend to stay deeply in the closet. Odd, considering the genre once embraced such dalliances.

To celebrate Pride 2014, Billboard.com featured the article “25 Great Gay Moments in Music”. The list contains many notable entries (Rob Halford of Judas Priest coming out, the emergence of synth-pop groups such as Bronski Beat and Erasure, Jill Sobule’s “I Kissed a Girl”, Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision 2014). But there are also noteworthy exclusions (no Boy George? RuPaul? Indigo Girls?).

Still, the authors are to be praised for not naming it the Greatest gay moments. Like too many “best of”, “top ten”, or “great/greatest” lists, the authors have a short memory, going back no further than 1976. This, of course, leaves out Ziggy Stardust, the Kink’s “Lola”, Liberace, and one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Cole Porter.

There are many more “great” moments Billboard could have covered. Still, it’s hard for me to quibble with any list that sent me mentally back to the dance floor while Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” blaring and confetti fluttering down from the ceiling. This was years after the song was released, but it’s such a dance classic, you’ll still find it getting the crowd wild in some gay clubs today.

For me, it was liberating to hear someone who was blatantly, undeniably gay getting rotation on my radio, and years later, seeing a room full of people dancing with abandon to the music of that same gay man. As Billboard‘s Jessica Lekemann notes, “In his ’70s & ’80s heyday, Sylvester earned 10 top 10s on Billboard’s Dance/Club Play Songs chart (including two No. 1s) and a place on the dancefloor for evermore.”

Had the Billboard article delved a little further into history, it would have acknowledged that Sylvester’s place in disco history was built on the trailblazing, high-energy men and women of the jazz movement and Cotton Club crowd decades before. Although jazz music has long been associated with a certain macho bravado, homosexuality was not uncommon in the genre. According to the article “Queers in Jazz History”, a number of well-known performers were gay or lesbian, often on the down-low, and many more were bisexual. (Queer Cultural Center.org)

The article goes on to describe the numerous gay or gay-friendly clubs and establishments in Harlem during the ’20s, such as the Garden of Joy, The Ubangi, and Hazel Valentine’s Daisy Chain, which was actually an apartment. Apartment-based establishments allowed for privacy that clubs open to the public couldn’t afford, so they became quite popular.

Voice teacher Casca Bonds and black archivist Alexander Gumby are among the many who reportedly hosted gay house parties. While well-known clubs such as the Savoy Ballroom held drag balls, the hottest parties were at the Rockland Palace, which were so popular that there was special seating for straight people who came just to observe the fun. According to the black newspaper The Interstate Tattler’s report on one drag ball at the Rockland, “Of course, a costume ball can be a very tame thing, but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed.”

Naturally, all this gay-romping worked its way into the music. The levels of subtlety varied from song to song, with some making singular references to gays or lesbians, often identified as “sissies” and “bulldaggers”, while others were clearly about gays or lesbians. Among those who recorded several LGBT themed songs was George Hanna. His song “The Boy in the Boat” was primarily observatory: “When you see two women walking hand in hand / Just look ’em over and try to understand / They’ll go to these parties have their lights down low / Only those parties where women can go.” However, his “Freakish Man Blues” was more personal: “There was a time when I was alone / My freakish ways could streak / But they’re so common now / You get one every day of the week.”

Several songs mention gays or lesbians merely in passing. One such example is “Sissy Man’s Blues”, recorded numerous times by various artists, in which the singer pleads, “Lord if you can’t send me no woman / please send me some sissy man”. Still, it was not uncommon for songs to focus entirely on homosexual relationships, most often lesbian in nature.

Monette Moore’s “Two Old Maids in a Folding Bed” describes a lesbian relationship that evolves from a night of drinking: Two old maids, sweet and tender / Two old maids go on a bender / Two old maids and a solid sender / Talking ’bout the two old maids in the bed”. Lucille Bogan’s “B.D. (Bulldagger) Woman’s Blues” was more philosophical and prophetic: “Comin’ a time, B.D. women ain’t gonna need no men / Oh the way they treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin”.

If there was a leader to this movement of inclusion, it had to be Gertrude Pridgett, better known as Ma Rainey. Rainey was such a force of influence that 45 years after her death in 1939, she was the subject of the Tony nominated play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Born in 1886 in Georgia, she began performing as a teen and married Will Rainey at the age of 18. The two formed Rainey and Rainey, with Pridgett adopting the name “Ma Rainey” for the road.

Ma was among the first to introduce the blues to vaudeville, her commanding voice earning her the name “the Mother of the Blues” and a recording contract with Paramount, for whom she recorded over 100 songs. Once called “the ugliest woman in show business”, she became almost as famous for her flashy, jewelry-draped appearances on stage.

Despite her marriage to a man, Ma was well-known for her love of the ladies, one of whom was reportedly a young Bessie Smith. Some accounts claim that Rainey mentored Smith, while others argue the two women just became good friends while they were both touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Whether they had a sexual relationship is disputed; what’s not disputed is that Ma slept with women. A lot. In fact, in 1925, she was arrested for hosting a lesbian orgy.

That incident inspired one of her most renowned songs, “Prove It on Me”, a song which motivated lesbian singer Melissa Etheridge to observe, “I always thought I was so revolutionary coming out, then you hear Ma Rainey sing, ‘I went out last night with some of my friends, must have been women cause I don’t like no men.’ C’mon, this was not popular stuff to be singing about back then or even talking about.” (Gertrude Pridgett. 2014.The Biography.com).

Even though the song is rather clear in its message, Rainey challenges haters to prove she’s done anything wrong:

Went out last night, had a great big fight

Everything seemed to go on wrong

I looked up, to my surprise

The gal I was with was gone.

Where she went, I don’t know

I mean to follow everywhere she goes;

Folks say I’m crooked. I didn’t know where she took it

I want the whole world to know.

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me

Sure got to prove it on me.

Later in the song, Ma Rainey notes that she wears “a collar and a tie” and talks to “the gals like any old man”, something to which Billy Tipton could certainly relate. Considering he was a man, this isn’t surprising. Except he wasn’t a man — he was born Dorothy Tipton.

As a young woman in her teens, she auditioned repeatedly for various bands and shows, playing both piano and saxophone, but found jobs hard to get. Desperate, she bound her breasts, put on men’s clothes, changed her name to Billy for an audition, and was hired on the spot. She spent the rest of her life in men’s clothes, living as a man onstage and off and playing with some of the biggest names and bands of the era. She even formed her own jazz trio, The Billy Tipton Trio, which enjoyed immense popularity and toured heavily during the ’50s. It wasn’t until her death in 1989 that her ruse was discovered.

Tipton’s commitment to the deception was so complete that she married a woman, Kitty Oakes, in the early ’60s, and the couple adopted three sons. None of her children knew Tipton’s secret until after her death, but it didn’t seem to matter, as all three praised him as a father. Scott Tipton told People magazine, “I think he probably never told us because he was afraid we might have rejected him. I could have accepted it. He did a helluva good job with us. That’s what mattered. He was my dad.” Oakes never publically discussed whether she knew her husband was a woman. (Paula Chin and Nick Gallo. 1989. “Death Discloses Billy Tipton’s Strange Secret: He Was a She”)

The oddity of Tipton’s life has, unfortunately, overshadowed her skills as a musician. Several books, plays, songs and revues have been based on her life, and she was the inspiration for The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet. Nevertheless, her piano playing is extraordinary. While it’s tragic that Dorothy had to live a life of deception to enjoy the career she wanted, it’s fortunate that she chose to do so, as it has left us with a catalogue of brilliant renditions. For example, listen to the energy and life she infuses in the usually slower-paced “Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”:

With artists such as Billy Tipton and Ma Rainey, as well as the great composer Billy Strayhorn, vibraphonist Gary Burton, trumpeter Bunk Johnson, and singer Gladys Bentley, among others, in its history, one would assume that the genre of jazz was more open and accepting of LGBT performers than other genres. After all, can you name any country-western or hip-hop artists who were out before 2000? Probably not. However, jazz is still a largely homophobic field. Jazz pianist Jason C. Weinreb noted in 2010:

Jazz as an institution is heteronormative beyond one’s wildest dreams. The sometimes-rough quality of the music gives it a distinctly “straight” vibe in popular culture — it’s as if the sexuality of musicians is constructed from the nature of the sounds they produce. Openly gay pianist Fred Hersch relates that some listeners take the beauty and lyricism of his playing for granted. After all, what straight man could play with such emotion and sensitivity? Or, turn this question around: how can a gay man possibly produce rough, edgy music? (“Jazz: A Straight Man’s World?”, Princeton Qmmunity, 7 May 2010. )

It would appear that a lesbian or bisexual woman can be more open about her sexual orientation than a gay man in the field of jazz, but women – straight, lesbian, or bi – are still a minority in the genre. Thus, a woman in jazz can be open and sing about her same-sex dalliances or preferences, while men tend to stay deeply in the closet.

One imagines that progress in the genre of jazz will come as it has in other areas, through the recognition of a loyal LGBT fan base and the coming out of artists who are more concerned with being true to themselves than being able to join the boy’s club. Since jazz and the blues are genres that claim to look at the human condition, it shouldn’t be difficult for its proponents to include all realms of the human experience. Then, Billboard‘s next list of great gay moments in music can include the brave jazz musician(s) who broke the heteronormative standard in jazz and blues music. Or maybe I’ll do that list in a future installment of Queer, Isn’t It?