Fans of Litchfield Jazz Festival, which has been hosted at The Frederick Gunn School since 2019, were thrilled when Connecticut native Nicole Zuraitis won her first Grammy Award on February 4, at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Zuraitis, a former student at Litchfield Jazz Camp, also hosted at Gunn, won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for “How Love Begins.” This summer, she will return to campus as a vocal instructor at Litchfield Jazz Camp, and fans can see her perform at the festival’s Jazz Brunch on Sunday, July 28, 2024 in Bourne Courtyard.
“I think because of Litchfield Jazz Festival that’s why I am a jazz singer now,” Zuraitis told NBC Connecticut in a televised interview on February 5, 2024. “Vita Muir saw me singing at a wedding and said, ‘Why are you singing opera music? You should be a jazz singer.’”
Muir, the Executive/Artistic Director of Litchfield Performing Arts, Inc., the nonprofit organization behind both the festival and camp, recalled that Zuraitis was a student at Litchfield Jazz Camp from the age of 12, and later went on to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“I was part of the Litchfield Jazz Camp when it first started. I went there as a trombone player and a piano player. I've had incredible music educators that helped shape me as an artist, that are all from Connecticut, and I give them props all the time,” Zuraitis told Connecticut Public Radio’s Ray Hardman in an interview for WNPR on February 9.
In addition to encouraging Zuraitis to switch genres, Muir inspired her to hone her chops on the piano. Today, Zuraitis is a premier vocalist for the Birdland Big Band and frequently headlines iconic NYC jazz clubs like Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center, Birdland, the Blue Note, the Carlyle, 54 Below, and the late, great 55 Bar. She has appeared as a featured soloist with the Savannah Philharmonic, Asheville Symphony, and Macon Pops and has supported iconic singers like Melanie, Morgan James, Darren Criss and Livingston Taylor on piano and vocals.
An adjunct faculty member at NYU Steinhardt and a lecturer on jazz studies and voice at SUNY Purchase, she has performed at Litchfield Jazz Fest since at least 2008. For the past few summers, she has appeared on stage in the Tisch Family Auditorium of the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center for Jazz After Work, a series of free concerts featuring Litchfield Jazz Camp’s stellar teaching faculty.
“I’m a jazz singer-songwriter and I’ve been working incredibly hard for many, many years,” Zuraitis said in an exclusive backstage interview at the 2024 Grammy Awards. “I met the producers for my record by playing in the background at clubs. You're always trying to be heard and trying to be seen as an artist and the challenges are mighty-fold. This is the first time I feel like I’m seen.”
Zuraitis co-produced “How Love Begins,” her sixth album, in collaboration with eight-time Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride. It features original jazz compositions and musicians including guitarist Gilad Hekselman, pianist David Cook, organist Maya Kronfeld, drummer Billy Kilson, and drummer and bandleader Dan Pugach, who is also her husband.
“It was just a tour de force,” Muir said of the album. “She did it on her own label.”
In 2019, Zuraitis’ arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” co-written with Pugach, was nominated for a Grammy Award, for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals.
Registration is open now for the 28th annual Litchfield Jazz Camp, which will begin June 30, 2024, at The Frederick Gunn School. The camp runs through the entire month of July. The 29th annual Litchfield Jazz Festival will be held at Gunn from July 26-28, 2024.
Photos by Lindsey Victoria Photography