By Jeff Cebulski
Kimberly Gordon, who goes by several nicknames (including, here at the CJM as The Jazz Foodie columnist), has been captivating audiences for over 25 years with her swinging delivery of jazz standards.
Her career has taken her from Chicago to NYC, the West Coast, and Europe. While she maintains a favored presence in places like Paris, she remains a homespun talent with Chicago pride. Her busy life, which includes a new food business, was clearly represented in the interview below.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: At this stage in your career, how would you describe your life and, perhaps, your performance ambition?
Kimberly Gordon: Great question Jeff! I am so happy at this stage of my life and feel full of promise for what’s to come. Ambition levels are high! Working overseas is dominating my singing schedule right now, and I love it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Other than the fact that you are talented, engaging, and recognized, to what do you attribute the demand for your kind of performance over there? Is Europe more in love with American jazz than Americans are?
Kimberly Gordon: Such kind labels, thank you, I’d like to think I live up to them all. Europeans love jazz the same as people in the U.S., I just happened to get over there.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: But there must be some differences between performing in front of audiences over there and those over here, aren’t there?
Kimberly Gordon: Yes, different song requests. I love requests and always prepare the crowd in my opening remarks to get those songs ready. I say, “Shout them out if you are so inclined, write it down and pass it up, or come talk to me on the break.” People fascinate me, their stories, their songs and the story behind the request. That’s where the magic is.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you have a couple of stories about memorable song requests that you can share?
Kimberly Gordon: I immediately think of the first time I sang jazz at an actual club, not at school or in my kitchen. Pianist Corky McClerkin asked me to sit in with him after hearing me sing under my breath while serving tea in the Palm Court. There was a new club that had opened up in the old Domino Lounge called The Underground Wonder Bar, and Corky was playing there that night. I nervously agreed and after my shift I headed down Walton Street practicing in my head the one jazz song I knew—it was “Lover Man.”
There were about ten people in the club, I grabbed a soda and sat up front waiting to be called. What an exciting feeling that was, I’ll never forget! I got up, stepped into the light, and went from audience member to entertainer forever in that instant. Afterwards, the reactions I got from that intimate crowd, and most importantly one lady in particular, changed my life entirely. She came up to me with tears in her eyes and shared her song story with me. Turns out her mother had just died and she was in town for her funeral. Her mother loved Billie Holiday and specifically the song “Lover Man.” Corky and I did all her mother’s favorites that night. Her first request was “Embraceable You.” I happily obliged and knew in that moment that this is what I was supposed to be doing. I quit my job at the Drake and started working at the Wonder Bar, debuted my trio within a year, moved to New York a couple years later, and the rest is history. So you see, a song request can change your life.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How do you see your ‘role’ or task as a performer—as an interpreter? Or to reshape a song for your audience? Or...???
Kimberly Gordon: I feel that a performer’s role is to transport the audience away from their own thoughts. You take them into the music, giving them relief from the stresses of the day or enhancing the happiness they are feeling in that moment. We are healers. As far as reshaping a sing for an audience, I do that every performance. As an empath, I walk into a room with a few songs I know I want to sing and my cache of secret song lists, but ultimately I read the room and come up with song ideas and lyric adjustments on the spot.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: I am fascinated by performers’ ability to “read a room.” What tips would you give to young singers who want to perform in venues like the ones you have encountered?
Kimberly Gordon: Tips for reading a room? Easy, just simply start by connecting with the audience. A smile and a hello in an unfamiliar room can lead to great song choices and enlightened performances.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You are generally considered to be one of the more “swinging” vocalists around. Is swing becoming an anachronism these days?
Kimberly Gordon: Ah yes, Chicago is a swingin’ city for sure and I am a product of my environment. When I moved to Manhattan in the early 90’s, I was recognized as “The Girl Who Swings”, it was a real badge of honor, and still is. Now in Paris they call me “The Sorceress of Jazz,” and I love that too.
Overall I find a nice variety of ages at all venues. However, a sad realization fell upon me around five years ago when I started to notice less and less of America’s “Greatest Generation” at my big band ballroom and nursing home gigs. This music I love and grew up with is the music they lived every day. I would look forward to singing at the homes because of the stories they would share with me. Ladies and gentlemen both, with tears in their eyes, recounting where she heard Billie Holiday sing the same song or how that song kept him alive through tough times in combat. I miss them in the crowd. I miss my Nana and Grandpa too. Their music was a huge reason why I am singing professionally today.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What are your favorite songs to sing?
Kimberly Gordon: I love a song with a verse, I love a ballad.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What would Kimberly the audience member want Kimberly the vocalist to sing?
Kimberly Gordon: Great question! Kimberly the audience member would probably like to hear Kimberly the entertainer sing epic songs from childhood—“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” songs from Porgy and Bess, “A Night in Tunisia,” “Goin’ to Chicago,” Joni Mitchell’s “California,” music from Bizet’s Carmen, “Handy Man,” Aretha’s “Baby I Love You,” and of course the Mr. Rogers songbook. I love him so much and have been singing his songs for my entire career!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: I appreciate your comment about Rogers...it seems to me that his songs are tailor-made for singers like you. What songs of his are atop your “favorites” list?
Kimberly Gordon: Easy: “It’s Such a Good Feeling,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “You Are My Friend.” I sing every week at Le Piano, you must come see me there. Honestly, Fred Rogers’ show, his band with Johnny Costa at the helm, and his songs help me revisit one of the happiest times of my life. I was the perfect age to watch the show, the world was new and Mr. Rogers was a touchstone. We lived in Lincoln Park on the DePaul campus when it still was a neighborhood with places like Roma’s Pizza, Toscana Bakery, Lasser’s Soda, and Mini Max. I learned to know my neighbors and ended up making friendships I still hold to this day.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How is your culinary business going? I get the impression you developed a reputation for your product ahead of your going into business. Is that right?
Kimberly Gordon: My kitchen business, Kimi’s Kitchen Chicago, is going very well, thank you for asking. I have extremely dedicated customers that get very upset when I leave town. We are looking into finding a little kitchen somewhere, mostly kitchen and a small pickup area with a few tables.
A couple years ago I found myself on the Chi-Town Foodies Facebook page and a dropdown bar “What are you selling” had been added overnight. So I thought to myself, ”What ARE you selling?” I had been making Greek yogurt for about a year, giving it away as gifts, so yogurt it was. I wrote an elevator pitch, came up with pricing, and posted it. Well, within 15 minutes I had orders.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Have to give you a chance to sell—why is Kimi’s yogurt preferable over others?
Kimberly Gordon: Ahhh yes, my elevator pitch. Well, I start by using glass pots, you know those funky amber colored ones from the 70’s and 80’s? It’s called Visions Cookware and it’s so hard to find now. I’m always on the lookout for the 4.5 litre at estate sales as it is perfect for making Kimi’s Kitchen yogurt. It cures in glass and is stored and sold in glass. It just tastes better. I’m a stickler and insist on milk with no growth hormones. This, too, also makes a difference in taste and texture.
My syrups and jams are homemade in small batches also cooked and stored in glass. I lovingly make everything I sell, usually while listening to old radio shows on WDCB or singing along with my favorite singers in preparation for my le Piano gig on Sundays. My customers call me “the Yogurt Whisperer.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: There seems to be no end to lady singers in intimate club venues. Do you see this as a continuous opportunity, or is there a bit of trepidation in having more “competition” for the performance opportunities?
Kimberly Gordon: This is Chicago, there’s always room for more singers! I adore and appreciate the intimacy of each unique voice in town and across the world. As far as competition for performance opportunities, nope, there are plenty of one-nighter gigs out there for everyone.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: I know that you don't want to exclude people, but I wonder who, among all these vocalists--nationally and locally--are getting your attention these days and who should receive greater attention from us.
Kimberly Gordon: Ahhhh…that would be like asking a mom who her favorite kid is. To CJM readers everywhere—On any given night anywhere in the world there is a singer that needs an audience. Go outside of your comfort zone, seek out and support live music at home and when you travel. I guarantee you will find a singer that will know your tune and enhance your life with song.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What does 2019 look like for you, singing-wise?
Kimberly Gordon: 2019 is looking spectacular! I have my favorite gig at Le Piano Chicago with Chris Foreman every Sunday till the end of time—that is my magic happy place. The Kimberly Gordon Big Band is debuting at the Illiana Jazz Society event at the Glendora Ballroom on April 14. May takes me back to Washington State for JazzVox, a high-end house concert series with pianist vocalist John Proulx. June 13th is the debut of the Kimberly Gordon Family Band with my 13-year-old son Costa on bass for the Jazzin’ in the Stacks Series at the Northbrook Library. I’ll also be heading to San Francisco for a nice run at the Black Cat. July and August are all about Greece, and then back to Paris in October, I can’t wait. I’m booking 2020 now. So crazy to even say that!
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