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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

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 Ciacca.

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.

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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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