New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Beyond NYU: A global jazz singer’s journey to becoming a Grammy winner

From studying vocal performance at NYU to winning a Grammy, Steinhardt alum Nicole Zuraitis is finding ways to share her love for jazz with the world.
Steinhardt alum Nicole Zuraitis. (Courtesy photo by Matt Baker)

Steinhardt alum Nicole Zuraitis grew up listening to music from bands like Led Zeppelin, always knowing that she wanted to share her knack for music with the world. Zuraitis eventually decided to study vocal performance with a concentration in classical music at NYU, before graduating in 2007. 

She began to explore musical genres after graduating and found her place in jazz. This year, Zuraitis received a Grammy for her album “How Love Begins.” She also received recognition for her work in Forbes, won a gold medal at the American Traditions Vocal Collection in 2021 and was a vocalist for The Birdland Big Band, a jazz orchestra.

In an interview with WSN, Zuraitis discussed her journey to becoming a jazz artist, how she became a Grammy nominee in 2019 and eventually won the award this year. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: Can you describe your career trajectory after graduating from NYU? 

Zuraitis: Right after NYU, I was still an opera singer. I did some young artist programs and I lived at home because of cost issues. Then, in 2008, I got an opportunity to sing jazz in the background of a pizzeria in Watertown, Connecticut. I was surprised that I was going to get paid to sing, so I took that opportunity. Somebody heard me and one of those background gigs and said, ‘Wow, you really should be a jazz singer.’ I just took those opportunities and ran with them — I was in a folk band, I was in a blues band and I did solo piano vocals. I did straight ahead jazz, modern jazz and then settled as a jazz singer.

While Zuraitis was initially interested in classical music during high school and college and pursued opera after graduation, she decided to transition away from the genre because she wanted to write music, which classical music doesn’t allow. In 2010, Zuraitis moved back to New York City as a jazz singer, taking on jobs as a nanny, host and member of several bands. She began her first residency as a jazz artist at the 55 Bar in the West Village in 2014 and started to apply for competitions. 

In 2019, Zuraitis was a Grammy nominee for her arrangement of Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene,” which she created with her husband and drummer Dan Pugach. She said her career began to take off after the nomination but was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as she had to stop performing live. 

WSN: How did you navigate your singing career during the pandemic?

Zuraitis: That was a tricky time. It helped me decide that I had to set time sensitive goals and really decide what I was. I was like, ‘I’m a jazz singer songwriter. That’s what I am.’ I began to focus on building my social media, my mailing list, and booking tours and building that brand. I’m glad to see that it worked and that I won the Grammy for best jazz vocal album — which is insane to me still.

Zuraitis began working on her Grammy-winning album, “How Love Begins,” in 2021. She spent a year recording, mixing and mastering it before eventually releasing it in July 2023. Later that year, Zuraitis released a surprise EP titled “Caffeine & Affirmations,” which included bonus tracks from “How Love Begins.” 

WSN: What motivated you to create your album, ‘How Love Begins’?

Zuraitis: I was inspired by environmental photography for the narrative. The narrative is that sometimes the most beautiful things in life are the most heartbreaking. “How Love Begins” is part one, and then part two is “How Love Ends.” The record is all original music. My co-producer, bassist Christian McBride, and Kabir Sehgal, who wrote the liner notes, really insisted on original music and finding a narrative that tied it all together. I was inspired by a photo of the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It was really a stunning photo, but then also an incredibly heartbreaking subject matter. That’s how I see love — it takes a lot of courage to be in love because if you lose, you have to always have the courage to start over again. That’s the theme of the record.

Along with performing, Zuraitis has been teaching a live performance class at NYU for the past two years. She is also a jazz studies instructor at SUNY Purchase and had the opportunity to teach jazz voice in Chennai, India for four months in 2012 with the Academy of Music. 

Zuraitis and her quartet toured in October 2023. She said that she travels at least every other week, with opportunities to go abroad to countries including Lithuania, Poland and Italy. Most recently, Zuraitis and her husband’s group, Dan Pugach Big Band, released an album titled “Bianca” on March 8.

She is currently working on her new album tentatively titled “Siren Songs.” The project, which she aims to release in August 2025, is rooted in jazz but incorporates elements of pop music, according to Zuraitis. She also has an EP that will come out in early 2025. 

WSN: What was it like to win a Grammy?

Zuraitis: It feels like a combination of many, many years of very hard work and a very validating moment in an otherwise difficult music industry. There are constant changes in the industry, with streaming platforms and social media stars, there’s a lost generation of geriatric millennials who were still living within the model of the older music business where record labels actually launched careers. It’s been an adjustment to accept social media as a necessary evil, to accept streaming and playlisting as a necessary evil and to acknowledge that live performance and touring is the best way to make a living. It’s hard on the body, it’s hard on the mind, but it’s extremely gratifying and joyful because performing to a real audience and not to a screen — there’s no substitute for that.

Contact Aashna Miharia at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Aashna Miharia
Aashna Miharia, Deputy News Editor
Aashna Miharia is a first-year studying journalism and public policy with a minor in business studies. She’s from the Boston area and a novelist, coffee enthusiast and lover of independent bookstores. You can usually find her listening to an audiobook while wandering around New York City or on Instagram @aashnamiharia.

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