Jazz singer Kimberly Gordon: ‘It’s in my blood’

September 21, 2018

THREE OAKS, Mich. — Kimberly Gordon was working at The Drake when jazz pianist and musical director Corky McClerkin heard her humming and singing as she waited tables.

“One night he said to me, ‘Why don’t you come up and do a song?’” Gordon says by phone from her home in Chicago. “Back then, they didn’t allow singers in the Palm Court of The Drake, so I sang, ‘Under My Breath,’ with him and he was so impressed. He was going to work at a club downtown that just opened called the Underground Wonder Bar, and he said, ’Why don’t you come down and do a tune. So I said, ‘Maybe I will!’”

That same night, when her shift ended at 10 p.m., Gordon walked down Walton Street singing Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man” in her head until she walked into the club.

“So I make it to the club, and I finally got called up, and I did my song, I did ‘Lover Man,’” Gordon says. “The reactions I got from the few people who were there that night, and just the heartfelt reactions of how I moved them, I thought, ‘Well, this is what I should be doing.’ I started working as a singing waitress at the Wonder Bar almost immediately. I started my trio within a year, and now I’ve been singing in clubs and concert halls for 25 years. Singing in that moment changed my life.”

Today, the Kimberly Gordon Quartet, which also includes husband and pianist Demos Petropoulos, bassist Joe Policastro and drummer Luke Sagadin, makes its Acorn Theater debut.

“I am at a point now in my career where I have my favorite, favorite songs from composers and lyricists, so I will be doing a selection of my Top 20,” Gordon says. “These are songs I have done for many years and just mean a lot to me.”

Cracking that Top 20 are songs such as Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me” and “Satin Doll,” as well as songs she’s recorded, such as Joe Raposo’s ”(It’s Not Easy) Being Green,” made famous by Muppet Kermit the Frog.

“I love Joe Raposo. He wrote a lot of music for ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Muppets,’” Gordon says. “I like to show a little bit of whimsy.”

Growing up in the Chicago neighborhoods of Old Town and Lincoln Park, Gordon says she became enamored with jazz from an early age thanks to her grandparents, James Edward Gordon and Geraldine Gordon.

“I come from a long history of Chicago nightclub history,” she says. “My grandfather was a dancer at The Chez Paree, and probably every other club in Chicago, and my grandmother was a camera girl at The Chez Paree, which is where they met. We were very close, so I heard stories and listened to records and watched a lot of old movies with them, and in those old movies are big bands, so it was something I related to and emulated at a very early age. It’s in my blood.”

While she sang in choirs in high school, Gordon says studying music in college was not an option for her.

“I was a bit of a lost teen,” she says. “I had to start working right away for my family to help them out. I would just hand over my paycheck, which I didn’t mind helping the family, but waitressing was what I could do for instant cash.”

McClerkin’s nudge sent her in a new direction. Three years after that chance encounter, she headed to New York City. During her five-year stint there, she was artist-in-residence at Smalls and Cleopatra’s Needle also singing at The Village Vanguard, Bradley’s, Sweet Basil and other top venues.

After returning to Chicago, Gordon earned a residency at The Green Mill, where, during a 10-year run, she held court on Sunday nights, a highly coveted spot. She was also the original singer there with the Swing Shift Orchestra every Thursday for 15 years, garnering her the title “The Nightingale of The Green Mill Lounge.”

She recorded two albums on The Sirens Records label, “Melancholy Serenade” (2005) as Kimberly Gordon Trio, and “Sunday” (2011), which chronicled her last five years of music at The Green Mill.

Last year, she was featured on “Live at Churchill Grounds” with Matthew Kaminski, who is perhaps better known for being the Atlanta Braves’ organist.

“He used to come to The Green Mill, and he invited me down to Atlanta to sing,” Gordon says. “I’m featured on about half the album. It was a lot of fun.”

Gordon’s vocals often reflect a more old-school approach of delivering standards, deeply rooted to staying true to the melody as written while still making it her own.

“When I’m working on tunes and trying to make them my own, I really just pull from my classical training, and my inspiration of other tunes,” she says. “Sometimes I will be singing a song and I will hear another melody within that song, like a quote if you will. I’m not sitting down and saying ‘I am going to do something different,’ because that can be contrived. Things that are over arranged are not good either. For me, it’s just more of an organic process than that.”

If you go

Who: Kimberly Gordon Quartet

When: 8 p.m. EDT today

Where: The Acorn Theater, 107 Generations Drive, Three Oaks, Mich.

How much: $25

Contact: 269-756-3879 or www.acorntheater.org

Artist info: www.sonicbids.com/band/kimberlygordon

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