Jazz singing police officer, veteran gets taste of international success

Justin Echols, an Oklahoma City police officer and veteran, is finding success in jazz music, a talent he didn't know he had until after he'd suffered his life's biggest setback.
by Heather Warlick Published: March 26, 2012

“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.”

by Heather Warlick
Life & Style Editor
Since graduating from University of Central Oklahoma with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, Staff Writer Heather Warlick has written stories for The Oklahoman's Life section. Her beats have included science, health, home and garden, family,...
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