The thing about life is that everything you know and plan can change on a dime. That’s what happened to Justin Echols in January 2003, when the Oklahoma City Police Officer and Army Reservist was involved in a head-on collision. The accident and his lingering injuries changed the course of his life forever, but not necessarily for the worse.
“[Before the accident] I thought my impact would be in the world of law enforcement. Then, for most of my 20s, my health was spiraling out of control,” says Echols.
Injuries to his lower back led to a degenerative disc disease; he suffered from cervical fracturing, and shooting pain down his legs. He developed keloids, causing severe scarring, and a fungus on his head required six hair removal procedures.
“My self-esteem was completely destroyed,” Echols says, adding that he was unsure if he would even be able to stay in the police department. “If I didn’t already stand out with a badge and gun, imagine having significant scarring as an African American in Oklahoma.”
Echols’ wife, Ara, had her hands full caring for Justin and the couple’s first child. Justin’s mother moved in with her piano to help care for him. “All of a sudden I began to use the piano kind of intuitively as therapy,” says Justin. “I bought a couple CDs and tinkered around playing Ray Charles by ear. I was enjoying it because it was something I could do.” But he says it was Harry Connick, Jr.’s CD Other Hours that really inspired him and changed his life.
“The musical talent really came out of nowhere,” says Echols. “I grew up singing in church, but I didn’t know anything about jazz before the wreck. I took piano lessons when I was about seven for one month and it was horrible. I wanted to play soccer.”
“Ten years ago I didn’t even understand that I was a creative person,” he adds. “I had been missing those little cues my whole life. It was the accident that really put me on the path to figuring that out.”
Today, Echols drifts seamlessly between the world of an up-and-coming jazz artist and that of a school resource officer/sergeant of campus resources for the Oklahoma City Police department, a job where he hopes to also mentor and inspire young people with talent in the arts. This comes at a time when Oklahoma City is working towards its own Renaissance.
“I would say that art, in general, in Oklahoma City Schools is probably at its rebirth right now,” he says, explaining how his home city is working to become more cultured. “There is a budding group of young artists who have been falling through the cracks in this city for many years. It’s really up to people like myself to catch them and create a future for a more culturally diverse, interesting, artistic city.”
“A lot of boys I deal with in my school don’t want to be involved in art because they think it’s not tough,” he says, of the student body that is largely minority. “That’s where it helps for me to be a cop and a soldier, and to be active in art. It hopefully gives them the courage to embrace their creative and artistic personalities.”
“You have to understand that, in Oklahoma, people don’t traditionally make a living as an artist,” says Echols. “For me, growing up, it was inconceivable that someone would become an artist for a living.”
“I think there’s much to do with exposing people to the value of art,” says Echols. “Education has to happen with the youth and adults.” As artist in residence at Hefner Grill in Oklahoma City, performing five nights a week, he sees one of his missions as exposing people to jazz. He often asks patrons about the last time they heard live jazz, and roughly 95% say it’s their first experience.
“I think it’s really important for jazz to begin to connect with people,” he says. “The big issue we have is that jazz rhythmically and culturally is a great distance from this generation because they want music to dance to. But music is more than something you dance to; it’s about messages, pain, stories, and so much more.”
Perhaps even more important is Echols’ message of hope: that during the most difficult time in his own life he discovered his true calling. “This is a story that shows people how they can change directions in their life, and how sometimes tragedies are the only way they can really figure out their purpose,” he says. “I’m 90% of what I was before the accident; I have two careers now and I’m engaging in the areas of my greatest strengths. I’m using my gifts and that’s the essence of the story.”
But using his gifts is really only part of the story. Echols’ music career, in the past nine years, has gone from self-therapy through music to performing in New York City and touring Europe, even sharing the stage with the likes of Wynton Marsalis this past summer.
“Everything I had gone through kind of flashed before my eyes when he handed the microphone to me,” says Echols.
Self-taught for the most part, Echols started to realize he had some talent and sought out a piano teacher, which proved difficult. “They didn’t want to teach me,” says Echols. “I was a 26-year-old police officer who was extremely excited about the piano. It was kind of bewildering [to them]; they didn’t call me back.”
That’s when he thought of reaching out to Marsalis through some agent friends. “I first talked about sending something to Marsalis in late 2004, but I didn’t do it for another year,” says Echols. “Two days after finally sending it, we heard from Marsalis, and three months later I was in New York City studying with Antonio Ciacca, a Marsalis protégé [and an instructor at the Juilliard School of Music and director of programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center]. Three months after that, I was in Soriano, Italy, and actually ended up closing out the Tuscia in Jazz Festival.”
And that’s just a small sampling of what has been a whirlwind start to Echols’ newly discovered career. “We set benchmarks for the year and Justin surpasses them before six months are up,” says Ara Echols, remarking on how their family, including two daughters—Justice, eight, and Grace, five—has been enriched by their musical journey. “Literally, God gave him a gift. People ask me how I deal with all this, but how could I not? I feel blessed. We’ve met wonderful people and experienced a lot more life.”
“My family has been with me through this commitment. This career is about family,” says Justin, explaining that his family frequently meets him for dinner breaks at Hefner Grill. They will also be joining him for a trip to Italy next summer when he will take on a new challenge: teaching.
“For the next year I will be focusing on developing the model that I will teach, specifically African American and jazz vocal techniques, vocalese, scatting, and things of that nature,” says Echols, who thanks his military and police training for his determination and disciplined approach to practice.
“I’ve got to deepen my piano skills,” explains Echols, expanding on other future goals. “I have access for the first time to an instrument at the school. When I’m not doing law enforcement there, I’m working with the band.”
Tours are booked during school breaks, and other gigs take place after work and on the weekends. “I’ve got tours in Italy, Turkey, Belguim, and the Czech Republic on the books for the next 12 months,” he says. “I work at the school Monday through Friday, go to the airport from my school, perform a gig in New York City on Saturday night, and fly back on Sunday.”
All that was before the October release of his first album, adds Echols. The album, Justin In Time, is mostly jazz covers with two original tunes that Echols wrote with Ciacca. One very personal number, “Danny My Dear, Chase Your Dream,” is dedicated to a young Italian jazz singer, Daniela D’Ercole, another of Ciacca’s students, who was tragically killed in an auto accident.
“I had an emotional connection to the tune because I was in conflict as to why, when she and I both had dreams of becoming jazz vocalists, her life was cut short and mine wasn’t. Why are some people allowed to accomplish their dreams and others are not?” says Echols, who wrote the lyrics.
For this reason, he looks back at the last couple years with wonder and doesn’t take any of it for granted. Rather, he sees his new career as somewhat miraculous. “There was pressure and depression and this music gave me an escape, so it’s pretty amazing how it’s turned into a career,” he says. “At first, I was doing it to cope, because it felt good to do, I didn’t know that I would ever perform.”