Of his 12-piece band Pink Martini, Thomas M. Lauderdale likes to say, "If the United Nations had a band in 1962, we would be that band."
Since 1994, the Portland, Ore.-based Pink Martini has traded in the sort of lush, beautiful jazz and pop that typified movie musicals and pop standards of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, but with a contemporary edge and a robust embrace of global music.
Growing from four to the current dozen players, Pink Martini is now referred to as a "little orchestra," with strings, horns, harp and pan-cultural percussion. Lauderdale—the founder, pianist and artistic director—met and became fast friends with China Forbes while they were students at Harvard, and the classically trained vocalist joined the group as its sultry lead singer.
The music of Pink Martini can be likened to an "urban music travelogue," Lauderdale has said. Along with English-language songs and pop interpretations of classical material, the group's music draws from the cultures and languages of countries all over Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East.
Forbes ably handles the foreign lyrics, too. "There have been only a handful of American pop singers who have sung in different languages, and China is in that tradition," Lauderdale said last week while the band was in Los Angeles.
The official Pink Martini press material points out that the band was formed to play political fundraisers for progressive causes. But Lauderdale was more specific.
"The band actually was formed to play one political fundraiser in particular: There was a movement back then in Oregon to illegalize homosexuality; it was called Proposition 13, and I was working hard to oppose that. I had the idea to bring the Del Rubio Triplets to Oregon to play a 'No on 13' event."
Wearing miniskirts, bouffant hairdos and go-go boots, the Del Rubio Triplets were real triplets (born in 1921) who played peppy covers of modern-rock songs in the 1980s and '90s. Two of them have since passed away.
"So Pink Martini was really formed to be the backing band for the Del Rubio Triplets," Lauderdale said, proudly, adding that Proposition 13 was narrowly defeated.
Before the formation of Pink Martini, Lauderdale was considering a career in politics, but the band gave him a new means of pursuing a similar goal.
"After that campaign, we found ourselves playing benefits for affordable housing, public broadcasting, libraries, all sorts of causes," he said.
Although Lauderdale doesn't mind Pink Martini being called an activist band, direct political references stay out of the music, he said.
"We don't sing songs about the political causes we support or anything like that. The spirit of the band is more ambassadorial. Especially during the Bush years, I think, being an American band singing songs in Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Italian, German and other languages was very important. I think Pink Martini represents a broader, more adventurous view of America."
Also important to Pink Martini are values that can be found in the music and culture of earlier eras in American society, Lauderdale said.
"The thing is, I think in America until 1964, there was a certain kind of American commitment to beauty and beautiful things. I think beauty was a goal of art and music and the culture, even advertising. I have old bound issues of Life and Look and even Playboy, and there is so much space and richness in the ads."
So what does Lauderdale think happened to pop culture?
"This is only my theory, but after the death of John F. Kennedy, it all turned dark and plastic and disposable. The goal of beauty began to slowly die. That was paired with the combination of changing politics in our country, and Vietnam and probably drugs, as well as an increase in selfishness and the idea of community."
The lyrics of many Pink Martini songs feature tangible, deep-felt emotions in the same way pop standards and movie music did in the first half of the 20th century. This is in many ways a response to the irony and sarcasm so popular now.
"I totally believe in romance and that heightened sense of love that China sings about. And people come up to me, certain friends who are otherwise really smart, and they tell me, 'I just love how your music is so ironic.' There is nothing ironic about it! I don't know what to tell them," he laughed.
Pink Martini has seen the release of three albums, the most recent being 2007's Hey Eugene!
This year, a live DVD (Discover the World: Live in Concert) has been made available for buyers, released by the band's independent label, Heinz Records, named for Lauderdale's late dog. A new Pink Martini disc, Splendor in the Grass, is scheduled to hit stores Oct. 27.
Produced by Lauderdale, Forbes and longtime collaborator Alex Marashian, Splendor in the Grass features way-cool guest stars such as the 90-year-old ranchera singer Chavela Vargas (a onetime lover of Frida Kahlo); actor-singer Emilio Delgado (aka Luis on Sesame Street); National Public Radio correspondent Ari Shapiro (making his singing debut); and guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols.
Pink Martini has played in Tucson before, and Lauderdale remembers well the last time—a gig at the Rialto Theatre, the venue to which the band will return.
"There was this little coffeehouse down the street, and I drank a dangerous amount of caffeine there, and the whole day turned out to be delightfully surreal. I had such a good time that day, and I think the audience did, too, but I am not so sure the rest of the band did, because I was probably a little manic during the show."