Originally, Thomas Lauderdale planned to become the mayor of Portland, Oregon.
Now he's living la dolce vita as the bandleader of the world-renowned, 12-piece Pink Martini, an internationally flavored group that combines Japanese film-noir aesthetics with the rhythms of a Brazilian marching band, performed with the genuine gusto that you might find at a Bohemian café or a late-night Parisian cabaret.
The 35-year-old Indiana native, who relocated to Portland in 1982, sees his current career as an "ongoing revelation."
Although Lauderdale started classical music lessons when he was 6, rushing to the piano after church (his father was a minister) to bang out hymns he heard during the service, he claims thoughts of being in a band were far from his mind. After graduating from Harvard with a dual degree in history and literature, he returned to Portland to work for the city commissioner on the city's civil-rights ordinance.
"Then I got sidetracked," he notes, with a giddy laugh. "Working in politics, I had to go to so many functions, and I was constantly dismayed by the bad lighting and bad music. I had an idea to create music that would appeal to people of all ages, something a little more fabulous than what was already out there."
Envisioning a sound that was partly inspired by Truman Capote's sweet sophisticate Holly Golightly, partly drawn from circa-1940s Hollywood camp, Lauderdale put together Pink Martini. After mastering Henry Mancini's Pink Panther score and the theme song from I Dream of Jeannie, the band booked its first gig in 1994.
Over the next decade, Pink Martini flourished, becoming cultural darlings who played at the Cannes Film Festival, landed songs on TV shows like The West Wing and The Sopranos, and performed with Sergio Mendes and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl.
This Saturday night, Pink Martini will join the Memphis Symphony Orchestra for the symphony's final pops concert of the season.
"We'll get in one rehearsal, maybe two," says Lauderdale, who will perform Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on piano with the orchestra before Pink Martini's vocalist China Forbes launches into material from Sympathique, a self-released debut album that has sold more than 600,000 copies, and its follow-up, Hang On, Little Tomato, which was released last year.
"Our goal," he explains of a set list that includes quirky numbers like "Amado Mio," "The Gardens of Sampson & Beasley," and "The Flying Squirrel," "is to create a diversely entertaining program, one that doesn't lose fizz."
He adds, "Maybe it's an updated Lawrence Welk kind of thing, but it will be a little more fabulous and a lot less spooky."
On their home turf of Portland, a tolerant town that Lauderdale describes as "plenty of Midwestern hospitality mixed with West Coast liberalism," Pink Martini does its share of community service. Earlier this month, the group staged its first annual FundFest, a four-night benefit for local causes like Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Children's Cancer Association.
"Portland's general population is more simpatico," Lauderdale maintains, "and for me, doing this kind of thing is really important. It's a really great opportunity to involve people in the local community."
He attributes Pink Martini's international success -- Sympathique went platinum in France and gold in Switzerland and Greece -- to the group's willingness to think outside the box.
"We're an independent group without a U.S. record label, and we get no airplay beyond NPR and college radio. But we're a really versatile group. We can play in a club, with a symphony, at an outdoor festival, or as the backdrop for a fabulous party.
"Being able to travel and be in a musical group is an amazing thing," he muses. "Honestly, I wish there were more bands like us."