Say you’re young, exceptionally bright, working in politics and bursting with musical talent. You book an established group to perform at local retirement homes and hospitals — after which the group is to play a whopper of a fund-raiser. Soon enough it’s apparent the band will need a warm-up act.
Most of us would get on the phone and try to book somebody — anybody. Young Thomas Lauderdale did no such thing. Instead, the pianist-composer and aspiring politician simply slipped into cruise director mode. He enlisted a singer, a bassist and a bongo player, and in the process, created the band Pink Martini. “Jet set, vintage chic and more than a little campy,” says the New York Times, but to anyone who has seen a Pink Martini performance, the band is much more than that. Today the Portland-based, 12-member ensemble has a worldwide reputation and a wildly diverse repertoire, displaying the influences of classical music, jazz, world music, cabaret and pop. Pink Martini, which appears March 25 in an SCP Special Concert, is cosmopolitan, sophisticated and yet completely approachable, a something-for-everyone good-time band.
Lauderdale grew up in rural Indiana. His father was pastor at Eel River Church of the Brethren, and as a small child, Thomas would go to the piano after church services and do his best to replicate the hymns he had just heard. Realizing their son was blessed with abundant musical talent, the Lauderdales bought a piano, and Thomas began his formal musical studies when he was six. In 1980, his family moved to Portland, Ore. Five years later, at 15, Thomas won the Oregon Symphony’s annual Corbett Competition.
Despite his musical success, Lauderdale focused his energies on a political career (he originally aspired to be mayor of Portland). He attended Harvard University and graduated cum laude with a degree is in history and literature. “What I learned in college was how to throw a party more than anything else,” he recalled. A Pink Martini performance is indeed a party — a joyful musical romp through various genres with plenty of great tunes both classics and originals.
After Harvard, Lauderdale returned to Portland to work in politics. Virtually nothing’s more essential to politics than fund-raisers, and Lauderdale attended plenty of them. For the most part, he found the music for these functions to be unfriendly, unimaginative and unappealing. So he decided to concentrate his efforts on coming up with music for all types of political gatherings, music that could be enjoyed by liberals, conservatives and anyone in between.
One year after Pink Martini’s debut, Lauderdale contacted fellow Harvard alum China Forbes. While in college, the two had performed together for their own amusement — Puccini arias, an occasional Streisand song. At Harvard, Forbes had studied English literature and painting, but was now living in New York City, writing songs and playing guitar. Lauderdale asked her to join his “little orchestra.” Together they wrote the single “Sympathique,” which became a huge hit in France and garnered a nomination for Song of the Year at France’s Victoires de la Musique Awards.
“At first I thought this would be a fun thing to do while running for political office,” Lauderdale said. “But the band caught on. We released our first album, and suddenly we were out on tour.”
Pink Martini band members are musical polyglots, having studied different styles of music from different parts of the world. “At one moment, you feel like you’re in the middle of a samba parade in Rio de Janeiro, and in the next moment, you’re in a French music hall of the 1930s or a palazzo in Napoli,” Lauderdale said.
Forbes performs music in 15 different languages, among them, English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Greek, Arabic and Japanese. “If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully, we’d be that band,” Lauderdale is fond of saying. “I think it’s important to be a citizen of the world, as opposed to being a citizen of this particular country. Part of that means studying other people’s languages.” Through the years, the group has taken its multi-culti repertoire to concert venues throughout Europe, Asia, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, the Middle East and North Africa.
For Pink Martini’s Symphony Center program, Lauderdale reports the band will offer its greatest hits, songs from its next studio album and a few selections from a newly recorded soundtrack for a movie starring French actress Isabelle Huppert.
“I’ve never really had goals for the band,” he said. “We just responded to what was in front of us.” Although he might not have goals, Lauderdale does have dreams: “We do these sing-alongs in the town square in Portland. They’re free and open to the public. People just come and sing along — songs of the American songbook, as well as American folk songs — everything from ‘Copacabana’ to ‘Home on the Range’ to ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ I’d like to do a sing-along tour around the country!”
Sounds like a plan.
Jack Zimmerman, a recovering trombonist, is a Chicago-based arts writer and novelist.