LITCHFIELD — To listen to Nicole Zuraitis is to be instantly transported back to the glory days of cabaret. She is exuberant, charming, talented, and has a melodious voice that, once heard, you do not soon forget. And you want to hear more.
Zuraitis, who grew up in Litchfield, started out on the main stage of the Litchfield Jazz Festival in 2008. Since then she has forged a career that has brought her rave reviews and an opportunity to share her talent with audiences around the world. And now the ultimate reward: a Grammy nomination that she shares with her musician husband, Dan Pugach. The category is Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals and it is for their interpretation of “Jolene.”
We have Dolly Parton to thank for writing “Jolene” and releasing it in 1973. It became one of her first hit singles. The song has only 200 words and many of them are repeated. Parton claims it is that simplicity and the unforgettable melody that make people fall in love with and remember the song.
Zuraitis’s interest in “Jolene” began about 10 years ago. “A friend of mine introduced me to it and I immediately went home and started playing it. I would play it solo until I met Dan. Then he would play percussion and I would play my arrangement. About three years ago Dan was playing at the Waterbury Palace. We were not yet engaged, but he knew that my mother had grown to love “Jolene” and he surprised me by playing his arrangement of my arrangement. He really made it come alive with his take on it. So the song has a lot of personal meaning for us.”
The idea for the song came to Parton one night when she was on stage.
“There was this beautiful little girl in the audience — she was probably 8 years old,” Parton said in an interview. “And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, waiting for an autograph. I said, ‘Well, you’re the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?’ And she said, ‘Jolene.’ And I said, ‘Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene.’ I said, ‘That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.’” And so she did.
Zuraitis and Pugach, who met through colleagues at the Litchfield Jazz Camp, have been performing together since 2009 and were married last year.
“We have always been each other’s best friend, and he tried really hard not to date me,” says Zuraitis. “He said, ‘We have a great musical connection; let’s not ruin that.’ But I badgered him, and we started officially dating in 2010.”
Pugach created Dan Pugach Nonet, a nine-piece ensemble which features his original compositions, as well as his inventive arrangements of jazz standards and pop material. The group won two ASCAP Jazz Composer Awards and a prestigious residency at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C.
Zuraitis became a member of the Recording Academy last year and as such she was eligible to submit nomination for consideration for a Grammy Award, which recognizes achievements in the music industry.
“I submitted Dan’s album in three categories, and then he noticed the arrangement category and suggested we submit our interpretation of ‘Jolene.’ There were about 500 nominations in that category, and we were amazed when we learned that we had made it. We have no idea who voted for us, but we are very grateful and hope that the love will continue!”
The love from their audiences will certainly continue. Zuraitis recently started a new project called “Generations of Her: Women Songwriters and Lyricists of the Past 100 Years.” Featuring music from 1924 to the present, the show is full of surprises, little known facts and classic gems. Zuraitis debuted it at Birdland, where she performs once a month. Since then she has spent the last year touring with Pugach’s band, performing at popular jazz clubs in this country as well as in South America, Switzerland and Israel.
It’s all a dream come true for Zuraitis, who amazingly enough, is self-taught.
“I started out in Litchfield public schools and then went to Holy Cross High School in Waterbury. I was always singing, and I learned by listening and watching and imitating.”
In high school she was playing the trombone and her music teacher suggested she try singing with the community college jazz band, which is where she found her calling.
She went to the Litchfield Jazz Camp, where she worked in the office in exchange for going to the camp classes. She then went on to New York University to continue her music studies.
While finding work in New York was challenging, there was a network of peers and a wealth of venues for musicians. Zuraitis would listen to as many as she could and learned from them. To listen to Nina Simone or Jane Monheit or Ann Hampton Callaway is to understand the incredible art of a song.
Zuraitis began to establish herself as the jazz-singer songwriter she wanted to be. Today, she is writing more and more of her own music and establishing herself as an extraordinary force in the world of female jazz artists.
In July 2019 Zuraitis will return to her hometown to perform once again at the Litchfield Community Center’s annual Summerfest. Meanwhile, she and Pugach will continue making beautiful music together and keep their fingers crossed about the Grammy Awards. If there are any Recording Academy member reading this, be sure to cast your vote before Wednesday.
To learn more about Nicole Zuraitis, visit her website, www.nicolezmusic.com.