“It’s crazy. In the 25 years since I was a student in the Portland Public Schools, just looking at the changes and how things have declined, it’s crazy.
“I don’t even know where to start.”
Thomas Lauderdale, founder of iconic Portland band Pink Martini, is on the bus up to Seattle for the band’s Sunday night show. And if he is flummoxed by something, chances are there’s a real problem at hand.
Lauderdale had just been asked about the state of arts funding in the schools, something he had brought up from the stage the night before when Pink Martini played at Edgefield.
“When I was a student, every school, had a band, had an orchestra, had a choir,” he says. “Go back even further and there was a time when each school had multiples of each – three orchestras, ten bands, 15 choirs.
“And it taught people so much more than music.”
Lauderdale says people learned discipline, to focus. Band, choir, orchestra, theater all taught people to cooperate, to negotiate, to work together.
”And it helped people not just become musicians but helped them at things as different as math and history. It wasn’t just about reading to learn music, it helped you become a better person.
“We’re allowing kids to become adrift, not offering them a chance to get grounded. Funding the arts is important but what’s going on is part of a much larger problem.”
It’s important to remember that Lauderdale is not just the highly successful leader of a highly successful band. He graduated from Harvard with honors and was active in politics here in Portland – working for Bud Clark, Neil Goldschmidt and Gretchen Kafoury.
There was a time where he thought he would one day run for mayor.
“We have forgotten what it means to be a citizen,” he says. “There is so much talk of rights – I have a right to this, I have a right to this, my rights are being denied – and yet very little about obligation. It’s one thing to think that you have certain rights but you also have to think about your obligations to help the world around you.”
Lauderdale would not mind seeing some sort of conscription in the country.
“Not military, or not just military but conscript people into service to help their cities, their towns, their neighbors,” he says. “Everyone wants to be a rock star and no one wants to have to work for it.
“It’s the American Idol problem. You think you can become famous overnight. There’s a weird sense of entitlement that is gripping the country and it needs to be stopped.”
Lauderdale looks around and sees a country where people seem unwilling to challenge themselves, risk the status quo; they would rather do what’s good enough instead of trying for excellent.
And he sees it here in Portland, where he grew up, where he lives. And it frustrates him.
“There is so much potential here that just goes untapped,” he says. “Too often people do the minimum instead of striving for more.”
He thinks it’s a problem that can be seen at all levels – all the way up to our political leaders.
“So many of them seem unwilling to push,” he says. “These are smart people who need to be more willing to take chances, to show real leadership. There’s no one out there that I want to follow.”
Lauderdale looks at leaders today and sees people who are smart and come across as determined to be the smartest people in the room. He thinks that’s a mistake.
“The mayor should be the dumbest person at City Hall,” Lauderdale says. “We need leaders who are willing to say there are smarter people out there and I need to hear from them. No one has all the answers.
“We need people who are going out and listening to people, seeing what life is actually like on a day to day basis.”
At Saturday’s concert, singer Storm Large – a Portland icon even before she started singing with Pink Martini – talked about what how one of the great things about the band is how they bring music from different cultures to different people all over.
In the show, the band performed songs in Japanese, Farsi, Romanian, French, Spanish, German, Turkish and Italian.
Lauderdale says it’s all part of the same philosophy – make the world a little smaller, let people know they are not alone, let the know that there are people around the world singing of the same hopes, dreams and struggles.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the distractions,” he says. “And we need to help people get beyond that, help them accomplish things.