They had simple post jet-setting plans: Perform a great show, stay over at the Crowne Plaza and then head to the summer-saturated Connecticut shoreline to relax—with their dog in places where four-legged guests are welcome.
The 2014 winner of the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers award, Zuraitis, who also plays piano, has a beautiful, expressive and powerful voice that’s been praisedfor “great emotional depth” and “seductive warmth.” Her latest disc, “Pariah Anthem,” is called “a winning exhibition of her performance and songwriting skills” by Owen McNally, the longtime Connecticut jazz writer. She’s lush on standards, and magnetically inventive on covers of songs like “Wonderwall” by Oasis and the gospel-influenced classic “People Get Ready.” (Listen to Zuraitis via her website. "Pariah Anthem" cover, right.)
The vocalist lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., the perfect address from which to build an international jazz career.
Last Saturday, July 19, she and Pugach (who won a national ASCAP award in 2013) loaded essentially everything that would fit into the car—their equipment for the show, what they had packed for the weekend getaway, and the dog.
“We had an amazing morning,” Zuraitis says by phone in the opening notes of her recollection of a harrowing experience, one with unwelcome improvisation that wandered into dangerous territory.
Vita Muir, the founder and executive director of the Litchfield Jazz Festival calls Zuraitis’ experience a Bonfire of the Vanities moment, referring to the Tom Wolfe novel that opens with a Wall Street investor and his companion taking a wrong turn and ending up in the “war zone” of the South Bronx.
The Crowne Plaza gig had been booked for a couple of months, and Zuraitis was looking forward to it. She had almost sold-out the venue a couple of times, and she and Pugach were being “comped” a room as special guests.
“The only place we could find a dog friendly hotel was in Mystic,” Zuraitis says of where they were heading the morning after the show, which was scheduled to start at 8 p.m.
Packed and primed for a great weekend, they left Brooklyn at 1 p.m., with far more than enough time to get to Southbury comfortably, no matter the travel conditions—make that no matter the traffic and normal travel conditions.
What happened next was anything but normal.
From where they live in Brooklyn, the couple took a tunnel into Manhattan and then headed uptown on the East Side to the Willis Avenue Bridge (to avoid Robert F. Kennedy Bridge tolls), which would hook them into one of a few easy routes to Connecticut.
On the way to the bridge, Zuraitis says, they drove over “a really big pothole.” And when they were on the Willis Avenue Bridge, the car just stopped working.
At first, it seemed like it would be a major inconvenience, but nothing worse.
Zuraitis says that both she and Pugach have premium level AAAmemberships, which include “100-mile towing.” That felt reassuring, and the fact that they had left such a big travel window had the musicians initially thinking they still would be at the gig on time, if more road weary than anticipated from the mishap.
But things start to slide, like an arpeggio playing out slow, note by note, or an improvised riff that takes a wrong turn and stalls.
Among other calls, they let the Crowne Plaza and jazz friends know what had happened. Beyond that, the first thing they had to do was get the car towed off the bridge by a paid service, as AAA informed them that it doesn’t provide road services on bridges.
So they end up sitting in the non-functioning car on the Bronx side of the bridge, and at that point AAA says it will be an hour before the tow truck arrives, Zuraitis recounts.
The singer points out (stresses) that she’s no pampered prima donna and has lived in New York City on and off for 12 years—so at this point the feeling remains that an annoying, and probably expensive, hiccup will get resolved, and its residue will be washed away by a great show and an ultimately relaxing weekend.
But then a bodies-at-rest urban phenomenon begins to manifest itself—like in those zombie shows and movies: When you move at a good pace through a troubled area, you’re usually OK, but when you come to a stop and linger, sooner or later the creepers close in.
“If you stay anywhere for 10 hours, you see the good and bad of any neighborhood,” says Zuraitis.
Sitting there and waiting, they watch people going to a rally concerning the situation in Israel and the Gaza Strip, they deal with “random people” approaching the car, and they “get accosted by really creepy dudes: ‘Oh you’re broken down. Do you need help?”
In another instance Zuraitis recounts, “This really fancy car comes up and pulls over two feet in front of us. … The men in the car were making lewd gestures at me; ‘Hey girl, what are you doing?'
“It was just very dramatic,” Zuraitis says of how she, Pugach and their disabled car increasingly became a focal point of unwelcome and troubling attention.
At some point fairly early on there’s another call to AAA, which says it will be an hour longer than indicated before the tow truck arrives.
And there are also calls to Zuraitis’ dear friend and Litchfield Jazz Camp colleague, saxophonist Albert Rivera (“I love him to death and he’s an amazing friend), along with others members of jazz corps who want to send help.
All of this is happening at a Mobil station after they have been towed off bridge, and the situation escalates to a new level after a car with tinted windows takes up residence in the parking lot not far away.
“More people keep coming to that car, like 20,” says Zuraitis. “Then we hear a gun cock and they say, ‘This is how we roll.’" She and Pugach wonder, “Do we call the cops; they’re technically not threatening us.”
Somewhere within this scenario there’s another call to AAA, which, according to Zuraitis, says, “Actually the tow won’t be there now until 7.”
At that point she starts to panic.
“It was scary,” Zuraitis says. “There were a lot of people loitering around this one car. …There were literally 20 people there with their guns.”
Just when it looks like a crisis moment is looming, an unmarked white van pulls up. It turns out that it was dispatched by the Crowne Plaza after one of her earlier calls.
“I open the [door of the] white van and say, ‘Hey … we got the goods,’” Zuraitis says in explaining that her urban survival instinct had her keep the creepers off guard the entire time by responding in unexpected ways that indicated the opposite of distress or fear.
They load everything from the car into the van, and then the police arrive on the scene, apparently after getting a call from someone in the neighborhood. Even the police, whose presence makes the creepers with guns flee, are surprised and troubled by the “guns in the middle of the day," Zuraitis says.
Finally the tow truck comes, and only then does Zuraitis hop into the van and head to the gig, because the show has to go on, no matter how late, how short or how frazzled her nerves.
With the situation diffused and a feeling of safety back, Pugach stays behind with the car and the tow truck.
“Dan calls me 20 minutes later and tells me the tow truck broke down,” Zuraitis says. It’s become way more than one of those days.
At this point, they have to “roll the car from one tow truck to another.”
“I arrived at 9:30 to a crowd that had stuck around,” Zuraitis says. She performed five songs, “because I was shell-shocked, and gave everyone I could a free CD.”
On Facebook, she is reaching out to all those who came to the show to try to offer recompense for the frustrating experience they had.
Zuraitis hasn’t had difficulty rebounding from an experience she calls “really mortifying,” and holds no ill will toward the Big Apple she loves.
But there’s no such forgiveness or understanding for AAA. “It would have been so easy to rob us, and AAA did not pull through,” she says. “They just left us ... in the middle of the Bronx.”
Listen to and see Nicole Zuraitis
See Nicole Zuraitis’ website for more information about her and upcoming tour dates, and listen to her sing online. As part of the Litchfield Jazz Camp experience, she will be performing in some upcoming free concerts at Maguire Auditorium on the campus of Canterbury School in New Miford.
The shows run from 7:15 to 8:30. This Sunday, July 27, all faculty members are performing. Zuraitis is also on the bill July 28, July 30, Aug. 3 and Aug. 4.
Other mainstage performers this year include the Cyrus Chestnut Trio, The Gospel According to Jazz with Kirk Whalum, Cécile McLorin Salvant, the Jimmy Greene Quartet, The Litchfield Jazz Festival Orchestra Django Reinhardt Project, the Mike Stern Band featuring Bob Franceschini, Janek Gwizdala and Lionel Cordew, Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, Curtis Fuller and Friends, Mario Pavone Octet - The Accordion Project, Anthony Strong and the Claudio Roditi Brazilian Jazz Sextet.
See article, written by Doug Clement, as it apperared (with many photos) on Connecticutmag.com here.