Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The equalizer

Retro thinking for forward mobility

Express Staff Writer

China Forbes, center left, sings in several languages and is the sophisticated vamp of Pink Martini, coming to Ketchum's River Run on Aug. 13. Photo courtesy of Pink Martini

I'm a big believer that The Muppets will somehow be behind world peace. And after speaking with Pink Martini's founder, Thomas Lauderdale, I think he's going to be their leader. Or at least the mayor of a progressive city that sets the tone for the rest of the nation.

Lauderdale, the oldest of four adopted children consisting of "an Iranian brother and an African-American brother and sister," and himself, "a mystery Asian," grew up in Indiana, the son of pacifists, a preacher and his wife. When his father came out as gay, his mother moved the family to Portland and remarried. Now she and her former and current husbands are planning their retirement together.

He grew up with music on a reel to reel and there were six things playing in his childhood: Roger Miller, Ray Charles, The New Christy Minstrels, Ray Coniff, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the soundtrack to "Jesus Christ Superstar."

He took that bric-a-brac life, a bend for the retro and Barbra Streisand, Verdi, Puccini and the piano and obviously, a great intellect, to Harvard, where in 1988 he met the captivating China Forbes.

"She was the queen of the dining hall," Lauderdale recalled. "I was immediately struck by her voice and her presence. She would be great on 'Saturday Night Live.'"

Over the next 18 years, with her suave, maple-syrup thick vocals and a chameleon range that glides effortlessly through feisty tangos, speakeasy jazz and even ranchero, and his virtuosity on the piano and ability to weave nostalgia and kitsch, romance and class, they would become Pink Martini.

Early on, despite the undeniable magnetism of their collaboration, Lauderdale insists he saw his future in politics.

"I thought I was going to be mayor of Portland. And I went to all these political functions and the bands were really loud and there was no musical wallpaper to socialize and mingle, something fun and fabulous, with a 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' elegance."

So he and Forbes began lending their musical talents to other people's functions and backing causes like affordable housing, libraries and musical education in the schools, while also playing at a hot spot for the hoity-toits on weekends. They were reaching the people and merging the people with their sound.

"The FBI called us to play their Christmas party! It was terrifying but amazing," he said. "The amazing aspect of this band is the diversity of the audiences. We get very conservative people and very liberal people together. We resonate with a broad spectrum of people, which I think is quite wonderful when so much of our country is polarized."


The equalizer, Lauderdale believes, is bringing the past to the forefront.

"We live in a country that largely throws away their older generation because we believe the youth are our future. But it's because we have no dialogue with the people who have been here that we continue to make egregious errors."

His mission now is to create an environment with his shows that are "respectful, inclusive and kind and hopefully beautiful and inspiring along the way. We try to include as many people in the pie as possible and to champion the underdogs."

Such ambition came simply from "an anxiety about not being included and not being good enough," he said. "That sort of empathy and thought and consideration comes from my own fears and looking at people who are often overlooked."

The band has an international cult following and has four adventurous albums to their credit.

He's constantly reinforced that he's on the right track by the invitations the band gets and the relationships that result. He recently did a duet of "Smile" with comedian/pianist Phyllis Diller, 94.

When the band comes to Sun Valley, they will have Norman Leyden, conductor of the Oregon Symphony, also 94, with him lending to the authenticity.

"It's all about collaboration. It's about doing things unexpected and doing things I never have thought about, like working with the Air National Guard. It's trying to find the commonalities and the places where we can agree. I think that's a good place to be."

The sophisticated and multicultural lounge orchestra will perform in Ketchum Monday, Aug. 13, thanks to Sun Valley Center for the Arts.

Anyone thrilled by the delayed gratification of the needle hitting vinyl and the static before the music begins, anyone who likes a samba vibe, French music hall sound, the 60s, or just being surprised will love this band.

Lauderdale has said Pink Martini is the house band the 1962 United Nations would have had if they had a house band. He also calls them "Muppets-meetLawrence Welk," with an extra dash of class.

"I believe we are ambassadors of good will abroad. Even though I grew up in a pacifist household, I would love to do a USO tour. The troops deserve wonderful music."

Lauderdale is proud that his large band employs more than a dozen people who are able to support their families while traveling the world. But social change is where they want to rest their laurels, not in monetary gain.

"Each of us fears not being invited to the party," he said. "Most people today are in a terrible spot. They are losing the ability to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Something has to change. We have to take better care of our neighbors and those around us.

"What good is it to have all the cupcakes in the world if you can't share them?"

Be there

What: Old fashioned, symphonic global pop with Pink Martini.

Where: River Run Lodge, Ketchum.

When: 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13.

Tickets: $35-$45 at

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