Pink Martini’s Surprising Origin Story

When audiences see globally celebrated group Pink Martini perform its rollicking blend of saucy and swinging melodies, they might find it hard to believe the group’s origins stem from politics.

As unlikely as it seems, this swanky band of a dozen highly talented musicians — performing at the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Annual Gala Concert on March 3 at The Smith Center — got its start at political rallies.

“We became the house band for political fundraising,” says founder Thomas Lauderdale.

Back in the mid ‘90s, Lauderdale had his eyes set on eventually running for office, he explains.

Passionately immersed in political campaigns, the Harvard graduate organized a community concert in his native Portland to raise awareness of a proposed state amendment.

Practically on a whim, he created Pink Martini to serve as the opening act.

“The response was really fantastic,” he says. “Because of my interest in politics, we started playing political fundraisers.”

With Lauderdale on piano, the group gave lively performances at hundreds of political benefits, he says, supporting causes spanning river cleanup, public broadcasting, libraries, affordable housing and more.

“I thought political fundraising should be fun, and I didn’t like the music they were playing at a lot of these gatherings,” he says. “Our repertoire was so much more. It brought ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ to political fundraising.”

The group’s catchy blend of classical, jazz and old-fashioned pop offered a democratic appeal, he adds.

“It appealed to people of different ages, different generations and different languages,” he says.

A Hobby Becomes a Career

Eventually persuading his friend vocalist China Forbes to join the group, Lauderdale didn’t consider Pink Martini as more than a pastime until several years later, when the band launched a European tour following the release of its first album.

“I realized, ‘This is going to be more of a career than I had thought,’” he recalls.

Still 20 years later, the group holds true to its roots advocating for civil rights and social issues.

Even after Pink Martini has toured several continents, Lauderdale dubs the group’s high point as performing with civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams at Carnegie Hall.

“She had studied to be a concert pianist, and she had determined long ago she would never play Carnegie Hall,” Lauderdale says. “To have her do this at age 80 was recognition of her life’s work and her civil rights struggle.”

From the Trapps to World-Class Orchestras

Lauderdale also focuses on collaborating with his musical heroes, including the Trapp Family Singers who inspired “The Sound of Music.”

Pink Martini recorded a full album with the great grandchildren of Georg and Maria von Trapp, who have been singing all their lives.

“They’re everything you would hope the Trapps to be and more,” Lauderdale says. “We convinced them to come to Portland to work on the album project, and they all still live in Portland.”

Pink Martini has also become renowned for performing with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Boston Pops and the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center.

The group is thrilled to perform again with the Las Vegas Philharmonic, Lauderdale notes.

“With an orchestra, there’s an opportunity to create a larger landscape of sound,” he says. “The overwhelming wave of sound is exhilarating to the listener, as well as us in the band.”

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