When Justin Echols was faced with near immobility after a catastrophic car crash, the Oklahoma City police sergeant found catharsis and a new career in a long-buried talent for jazz music.
Now, almost a decade after the car accident, Echols, 33, is embarking on an international jazz career the likes of which he once only dreamed.
“I had played when I was a kid, when I was five or six years old,” Echols said. “There was no real skill, there was no desire, there was nothing there. As a matter of fact I was pretty bad.”
Audiences in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where Echols recently toured for 20 days, might find that hard to believe. Today, Echols croons the standards with a voice as smooth as melted chocolate and manipulates the ebonies and ivories as if he were born in a New Orleans jazz club.
Echols followed his recent tour with a 10-day stint in New York at Setai hotel, playing a special engagement.
During his stay in New York, Echols recorded a CD with Antonio Ciacca, director of programming at the “Jazz at the Lincoln Center.”
“It's definitely a crossing over from the level I was at to being considered a professional jazz musician because I recorded with musicians who are world renowned,” he said.
The CD, called “Justin Time,” will be available for sale near the beginning of summer, Echols said. The songs on the album include mostly remakes of jazz standards along with two originals written by Echols and
After the success of his recent international and New York tours, Echols has a string of touring invitations to choose from: The Czech Republic tour manager wants him back, he's booked again at Setai Hotel and has been offered an Italian tour that would result in a live performance CD.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Police Department has been eager to help Echols maintain his position in the truancy department of the force — Police Capt. Dexter Nelson says Echols inspires his fellow police officers with his music and by managing two demanding careers.
Life before jazz
Before the car accident, Echols always figured his most important contribution to society would be through public service. By the time he was in his early twenties, Echols had dedicated his life to helping others as both an Oklahoma City police officer and as a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve.
But in 2003, a head-on car crash sent Echols' expectations of his life's work spiraling.
“I was preparing to train MPs (military police) who would deploy to Iraq,” Echols recalls of the morning that changed his life. He was driving very close to his home, near Classen and Northwest Expressway.
“There was heavy dew on the ground. I struck a really deep pothole.”
Echols lost control of the truck he was driving. The truck drifted into oncoming traffic and was slammed into by another vehicle.
The accident caused Echols serious injuries including a cervical fracture and a midline annular tear at the L5/S1 vertebrae. Echols' spinal damage is a source of chronic pain that Echols deals with still.
“I spent six months going through rehab and physical therapy until finally I was discharged from the military and returned to the police department with very serious and chronic injuries,” Echols said.
Echols was also plagued with illnesses he said resulted from some of his injuries and medications: severe acid reflux, hiatal hernia (a condition in which part of the stomach protrudes through an area of damage to the diaphragm) and a fungus that led to six hair removal procedures on his scalp. Additionally, Echols developed keloids on his face and scalp. A keloid is excess scar tissue at the site of a healed injury.
He fought depression, weight gain and frustration at his physical limitations. He had to relearn nearly every physical activity he'd once taken for granted.
“This all happened in my twenties so I was destroyed with all of these health issues,” Echols said.
Music as therapy
While at home, recovering slowly from his wounds, Echols found himself listening to the music of jazz greats Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Harry Connick, Jr.
In the strains of the music, Echols found escape. He fell in love with the genre.
Watching a live performance of Harry Connick Jr., Echols felt his feelings about jazz music change, he said.
“I would credit him with really switching me from somebody who wanted to listen to it and enjoy it to someone who actually wanted to perform,” Echols said.
His mother was staying with his family at the time, and she had brought her barely-used piano to the Echols home.
Laboriously, Echols taught himself some of the basics of piano, one note at a time, striving to sound like his jazz favorites. Soon single notes became simple chords that grew to include the diminished, augmented and other specialty chords that are the signature of jazz music.
“I had no idea how much work that would be and what I was actually getting myself into,” he said.
Echols says he has a ways to go before he considers himself a world class jazz pianist — in his haste to learn to play like his favorites, he skipped over much of the theory needed for a solid base in the instrument.
But he is thrilled with the direction his new career is headed. When in Oklahoma, Echols is the Artist in Residence at Hefner Grill at Lake Hefner. There, he usually plays Wednesday through Sunday evenings in the restaurant's lounge.
“It used to be difficult to transition back then into putting on this uniform and getting into a patrol car and having to think about officer safety and having to think about protecting your weapon ... all the things that we have to deal with in law enforcement,” Echols said.
The transition has become easier for him during the last couple years.
He tries to find a happy medium between his two lives.
“I've definitely embraced being the same dude in both worlds,” Echols said.
“I take a little bit of cop into jazz but I take a little bit of jazz into the cop.”