Thomas Lauderdale is busy.
He texts me from the road.
Then he texts from Columbus, Ohio.
"Just finishing a month-long tour," he lets me know.
I call him back, but his voicemail is full. I text and let him know that I'll call him the next day, just after lunch so that we can talk about his upcoming show at Les Schwab Amphitheater.
He texts back, "Great."
The bandleader for Pink Martini, Lauderdale is constantly on the move. Even when standing still, there is a kinetic energy to him; a hustle in his bustle, to borrow a phrase from another great band.
When we first met more than 15 years ago, brought together by a mutual friend of his from Harvard, where Lauderdale attended as an undergraduate before returning to his hometown, Lauderdale didn't waste a moment with conventional greetings. Instead, he took my picture with a Polaroid camera. We stood on the corner in Old Town Portland, and waited for the picture to develop. We had barely spoken a word to each other, and this was his greeting to me; a small gift, a memento for our first lunch together, a promise that this would not be an ordinary meeting, but something memorable.
His on-stage personality is the same as his in-person interactions; at just five feet and some change, Lauderdale fills a room, whether it is a cozy piano parlor or the Hollywood Bowl, the massive amphitheater where Pink Martini routinely performs. There is an intimacy that he projects, as easily connecting with one person as with an entire crowd; simultaneously earnest and effervescent, Lauderdale practically glows. Even so, it is not the type of look-at-me supernova egotism that countless famous musicians are infamous for, but a charisma that ignites others.
As important to the charm of Pink Martini as Lauderdale's gifted piano playing is Lauderdale's ability to collaborate and pull together other musicians. The band is, after all, some dozen members, give or take a few on a particular day. Since the beginning, when Lauderdale launched the band as in the early 1990s, Pink Martini has been about collaboration.
Most New Year Eves, Pink Martini plays a show at the gilded Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. Three years ago, he invited the great-grandchildren from the Von Trapp family (yes, the "doe a deer, a female deer" Sound of Music Von Trapp family) and performed songs with them that he had unearthed from their own family's archives. They were gentle, touching songs. (And subsequently, Lauderdale released a collection of their songs on his album label, Heinz Records.)
And, usually, after each of those New Year's Eves, Lauderdale rushes to his three story loft in a non-residential neighborhood in downtown Portland and hosts the be-all, end-all New Year's Eve party, a glamorous night of champagne and friends rushing up and down the stairs in his home.
A few years ago, we hadn't spoken for a long stretch of time, when I suddenly had a voicemail from Lauderdale. It was a Saturday afternoon, and he wanted to know if I could come over for dinner on Sunday. He ticked off the guests, Storm Large, a Portland-based singer who sings rock-and-roll with the elegance of an opera singer—or vice versa—and Ari Shapiro, a Portland native and, at that time, an up-and-coming NPR correspondent (and currently one of the hosts for "All Things Considered"). A few months later, Shapiro appeared on Pink Martini's fourth album, singing one of the tracks. Since then, Shapiro has recorded other songs with Pink Martini and performed with them live at the Hollywood Bowl.
This past Monday afternoon, I called Lauderdale at 1 pm to follow up with a formal interview, to talk about his upcoming show in Bend, to talk about his opinions about the recent Supreme Court declaration that same-sex marriages are legal in all 50 states (as, after all, Pink Martini started, in part, because Lauderdale wanted to raise funds to help defeat anti-gay measures), and, to ask whether he will ever run for mayor of Portland, as he has flirted with in the past.
Lauderdale isn't there.
I leave a message.
When my phone rings at 11:17 that night, I'm too tired to keep up with Lauderdale and let it go to voicemail.
5 pm, Saturday July 25
Les Schwab Amphitheater