Doors Wide Open is made up of (from left) saxophonist Matt Zavitz, bassist JonathanDerricott, keyboardist/vocalist Jerel Crockett and lead guitarist Lenny Holmes. (DrummerDerrick Simmons is not pictured). (Photo by Jay Paul)
In a sunny room in an unassuming house on a tree-lined street in South Chesterfield, a new kind of jazz is blossoming.
Four members of Doors Wide Open each shift their feet and grip their instruments tight. They’re almost ready to play.
“This is not your grandfather’s or father’s jazz,” bassist Jonathan Derricott says as he tunes his instrument, a knowing smile spreading across his face. “When my daughters bring their friends to our shows, they say, ‘I didn’t know I liked jazz! This is bad.’ ” Bad meaning very, very good.
From his bench, keyboardist and sole vocalist Jerel Crockett says, “Our sound is unique because we’re one of the only contemporary jazz groups in Richmond.”
Saxophonist Matt Zavitz tilts his head, his fingers brushing the horn’s taps. “We’re more smooth jazz, I think,” he says. The guys then break into a friendly argument about exactly what their sound is.
“Whatever it is,” lead guitarist and composer Lenny Holmes interjects smoothly, “there’s something for everybody.”
“Where’s the Bishop?” Crockett calls out, craning his neck and peering around a corner. The Bishop? Suddenly, I feel underdressed — I wasn’t prepared to be in the presence of clergy, I tell them with a smile. They laugh and kid with me; the Bishop is their drummer, the band’s fifth member.
Soon, he glides in for the rehearsal, hat pulled low over his eyes and sticks clasped in his fist. Without a word, the Bishop takes his place and raps on the snare lightly; the band starts in on a revamped version of “Water Sign” by Grammy-nominated keyboardist and composer Jeff Lorber. The music reverberates off the room’s eggshell walls as melodic measures spool from each instrument, twining into strands of harmony that twist up toward the ceiling.
Fusion jazz band Doors Wide Open was founded in 2004 at Crockett and Derricott’s family Thanksgiving dinner in Hanover County. Crockett, who studied music at Virginia Commonwealth University, played one of Michael Jackson’s later hits — “Butterflies” — for Derricott, his uncle, after dinner. “I told Jerel, ‘We can make that into a jazz version,’ ” Derricott remembers. “He said, ‘No way, we can’t make this into jazz.’ But we did.”
With that same spirit of innovation, the band grew to include Holmes, drummer Derrick “The Bishop” Simmons, and Zavitz — who was only 14 when he joined the group. All of the musicians had been raised and trained in church, playing gospel, contemporary Christian and praise music. Doors Wide Open was their portal to a new groove.
At first, they took any gig they could find, playing close to home at the Iron Horse Restaurant and Ashland Coffee and Tea. As their sound evolved over the next several years, the gigs got bigger. “We played The Hippodrome countless times,” Crockett says. They also rocked the crowd at last year’s 2nd Street Festival in Jackson Ward. A milestone came when the band opened at the 2014 Richmond Jazz Festival.
“We went on right before Ravi Coltrane,” son of famed saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, Crockett says. “We were on the same stage as all these jazz greats, and we held our own.”
Cavell Phillips, a pioneer of gospel radio in Richmond and the host of the Richmond Jazz Festival since its inception, says of Doors Wide Open, “Their sound gives you this emotion, this unique feeling.” He believes it stems from the group’s easy improvisations. “They do it very well,” says Phillips, host of the Up Beat gospel radio show on 106.5 The Beat. “They’re better at it than most I’ve heard.”
The band pulls inspiration from artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Floetry and Michael Brecker. Their music flows fluidly from neo-soul to classic jazz to R&B to gospel — and back again.
“You’re kind of uncuffed in this band,” says Derricott, whose rich bass notes give the music a solid, soulful backbone.
Their original style sets them apart.
“Versatility is what makes Doors Wide Open so enjoyable,” says B.J. Brown, executive director of the Richmond Jazz Society. “They can play jazz standards from the bebop sounds of Charlie Parker to the fusion styles associated with Spyro Gyra and Herbie Hancock, as well as contemporary jazz and smooth R&B hits.”
The group boasts a combined 25 years of performance experience. And they haven’t forgotten their spiritual roots.
“I totally understand my ability to be a gift from God, and I lean on him when I play,” says Holmes. He does indeed seem possessed by a higher power when his fingers strum and pick his cream-colored guitar, pulling from it notes so sweet and pleading they could move a listener to tears.
The gospel sound continues to flavor their music: During their otherwise secular set at the Jazz Festival, they dazzled the crowd with “Show Up,” a bass-heavy, foot-stomping song by veteran gospel singer the Rev. John P. Kee. The audience was pleasantly surprised. “We took ‘em to church,” Derricott recalls with a broad grin.
Most of the band’s members still play in church. Crockett is director of music at St. James Baptist Church in Varina, and Simmons is a percussionist at Saint Paul’s Baptist on Creighton Road. Holmes plays at United Nations Church International on Midlothian Turnpike, while Zavitz, whose father is a minister, has engagements at various churches.
Around town, Doors Wide Open has played during the 59th Festival of the Arts at Dogwood Dell, a Jazz Under the Stars concert in Petersburg in September and at the Henrico Theater in October. They also appeared on WTVR’s Virginia This Morning this summer, performing their spicy rendition of jazz standard “101 Eastbound” by Fourplay. As their star continues to rise, band members are keeping the door of musical expression open.
“Jazz is fun and full of life,” Holmes says, his hand wrapped around the neck of his guitar, his eyes sparkling. “There’s a lot of freedom in it.”
Web Extra: Watch Doors Wide Open play “Water Sign” and hear the band members tell how their sound plays into the Richmond music scene at richmondmag.com/jam.