Pink Martini

A study in musical diplomacy

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

People start bands for all kinds of reasons, but most of those reasons fall under the general heading of “I have musical desire/skill/wherewithal and time to kill/a rehearsal space/likeminded friends.” Such reasoning generally does not include considering what music the world needs to hear, and tends to be focused squarely on more self-serving considerations.

Thomas Lauderdale, on the other hand, came to the creation of his band via a slightly different route.

It was the mid-90s, and Lauderdale was not only working in politics, but also had political aspirations himself. But before he could run for mayor and realize his destiny as the official keeper of Portland’s weirdness, he first vowed to do something about the awful music he was hearing at fundraisers and other political functions. He envisioned a soundtrack that would cross lines of genre and geography, appealing to people on both sides of the political aisle.

As anyone with political experience knows, sometimes the best way to get a thing done is to do it yourself, and so, in 1994, Lauderdale founded Pink Martini. The band—which expertly blends jazz, pop, lounge music and whatever else you’ve got into a multilingual, multi-genre mishmash—played its first show at a concert aimed at defeating Oregon’s Measure 13, which would’ve made homosexuality illegal in that state.

As it should have, Measure 13 failed, and while it is unknown how much credit for that can be given to Pink Martini, what is known is the reception enjoyed by Lauderdale’s “little orchestra” transformed what was supposed to be a one-off performance into a music career for Pink Martini’s members.

Since then, the ensemble, which usually numbers in the eight- or nine-piece realm but sometimes swells to include as many as 15 members, has played in support of a number of progressive causes, including civil rights, the environment, public broadcasting, affordable housing and more. However, these days, their role as Portland’s go-to band for political functions has taken a backseat to their role as go-to band for fans of great music the world over who come out in droves to see Pink Martini’s musical prowess and eclectic offerings.

Part of what makes Pink Martini so unique is that they are, well, so unique. Plenty, if not all, musical acts are mining the past to create a sound in the present with the hope of being new and familiar all at the same time. Pink Martini does the same—except they do it in 17 different languages (a neat trick, considering Lauderdale is monolingual), dipping into the influences and inspirations of as many different genres. Their music sounds less like background music at a boring political fundraiser and far more like everything and nothing you’ve ever heard before.

Such lofty goals and eccentric execution could—and sometimes does, in other hands—result in music that is pretentious and unapproachable. But Pink Martini keeps its audiences firmly in mind, making lively music with an emphasis on making sure everyone is having as much fun as they are.

It’s an approach that works, and it’s taken the band all over the world, from France, where they are well-known and much-loved, to performances with orchestras in Asia, the Middle East, Australia, and beyond. It’s also taken them to the stages of this country’s late-night shows, with performances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the Late Show with David Letterman, and the Tonight Show.

Wherever they may land, Pink Martini presents its music from a perspective they consider to be distinctively American—made up of cultures and populations from all corners of the globe, united into one glorious homogeneous whole. It’s an optimistic viewpoint, to be sure, but one Pink Martini embraces wholeheartedly and embodies without cynicism. As diplomats go, we could do far worse than this multilingual troupe that embodies goodwill and acts from a spirit of kindness wherever their extensive travels may take them. Perhaps we’d do well to dispatch them as musical envoys to trouble spots across the globe. Even if they didn’t manage to bring about world peace, they’d sure show everyone a helluva good time.

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