Even worse than the cigarette smoke and the late hours, says jazz singer Kimberly Gordon, are the men. “I am constantly surrounded by them,” she groans, “though of course I’m dateless.” Sometimes she needs a break from male nightclub owners, bartenders, musicians, and, of course, customers–especially the drunk, lecherous ones who leer from the audience and imagine she’s singing “Let’s Make Love” just for them. “Once I had a guy grab me onstage, right here,” she says, clamping her hands over her breasts. “Half the audience was chuckling, and I had to keep singing. But I put all my energy into the music; I ignored the guy completely. By the end, the guy realized he had made a big mistake.”

Even when the performing life seems less than glamorous, Gordon considers herself lucky. Her solo career has taken her around the country, sharing the stage with jazz greats like Von Freeman, Roy Hargrove, Delfeayo Marsalis, and Bobby Broom. She also leads a quartet, which with little hype or fanfare is becoming a local after-hours favorite, steadily building its reputation on word of mouth. Gordon, 25, has been singing professionally for half her life and knows that temperamental divas have equally volatile careers. She’s preparing for a long one.

Gordon grew up listening to jazz, trained as a classical singer at Lincoln Park High School, and was a principal vocalist with the Chicago All-City Choir from 1983 to 1987. Plans for college faded after graduation; instead, she worked at the Biograph theater and stayed on with the choir as an alumni singer. After a year and a half, she tired of classical music and gave up performing. “I could never relate to singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ the way I could relate to the music of Billie Holiday,” she says. “I didn’t want to move on, but I had to.”

She got a job serving afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel, where pianist Corky McClerkin played regularly, and he started letting her sing during slow periods. “He was the one who really introduced me to live jazz,” Gordon says. One night McClerkin invited her out to the nearby Underground Wonder Bar to sing after hours.

“The first time I went down there to perform, I was petrified,” she recalls. “It was empty except for about 15 people at the bar.” She sang “Lover Man,” a standard, but declined when the audience asked for more. “I knew thousands of songs, but I just couldn’t do another one that night.”

Gordon, who had received standing ovations from thousands of people at Orchestra Hall with the All-City Choir, was overwhelmed by the intimacy of the club. “I felt like I was exposing a part of myself when I got up there to sing music that was so real. I didn’t want these people to see me cry.”

But with her friends’ encouragement, she began performing there regularly, adding new songs to her repertoire and working on her stage presence. She also began frequenting other local music clubs, observing other singers and scouting for accompanists. In 1991 she formed the first version of the Kimberly Gordon Quartet. With a quartet, she says, “you can work out arrangements, and you can get the most out of a performance when you’re familiar with each other.” Last year her frequent touring absences led to the breakup of the original quartet. These days she plays with pianist and arranger Randy Tressler, drummer Robert Berry, and bassist Chris Lopes; Berry is the only original member.

On a typical day, Gordon wakes up anywhere between 11 AM and 3 PM, wondering what last night’s smoke–or today’s weather–has done to her voice. “My throat is a constant battle,” she says. “Most of the time smoke gives my voice a sharp, cutting quality, but when it’s humid and raining I get a dusky voice.”

The afternoon is spent making phone calls to nightclubs, dropping off demo tapes, and networking with other musicians, trying to break into new venues. It took her three months of convincing to get a gig at the Moosehead. “The managers doing bookings have a lot of musicians to work with–they don’t have to expand.”

High on this singer’s wish list is an agent or manager, so she doesn’t have to get bogged down in logistics. “A couple days a week my rehearsal goes from five hours to one hour because I’m so busy on the phone. I want someone to come up to me and say, “I like what you’re doing, let’s get you some work.’ But that person has yet to hear me.”

At home with a pitch pipe and “a really good ear,” she rehearses tunes from her “golden list” of obscure but often requested numbers, like “Blue Champagne.” Gordon doesn’t listen to sung versions but to instrumental interpretations. “That leaves me free to think about how I want to approach a tune.”

Onstage, Gordon eschews dangling earrings, sequins, and heavy makeup in favor of a simple, classic look. She knows the spotlight invites scrutiny; her hands become instruments, her mouth and eyes become accessories, “because that’s what people focus on when you sing.” She always wears black and white, and she adjusts her wardrobe to the venue. At the Green Mill, a former speakeasy, she likes to wear a vintage velvet dress and a large white gardenia in her hair. At the Bop Shop she prefers the hip, unfussy look of a tailored black jacket.

Gordon is fortunate to have a good memory, because the only aspect of performing she doesn’t plan well in advance is what she will sing on a given evening. “I’m constantly comparing the way my life is going to the lyrics in the tunes, and that’s how I choose my song list.” Both, she adds, defy prediction. “I’m ‘Sophisticated Lady’ one day, ‘Mood Indigo’ the next.”

The Kimberly Gordon Quartet plays Saturday at 8 at the Moosehead Bar and Grill, 240 E. Ontario (649-9113); next Saturday, December 11, at 10 at the Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division (235-3232); and next Tuesday, December 14, at 10 at the Underground Wonder Bar, 10 E. Walton (266-7761).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.