Jan 29, 2018 - OKC cop Justin Echols is jazz music's Clark Kent

OKLAHOMA CITY --- There are two kinds of stories we all love to hear: One where the hero is so much more than he appears on the outside and one where the hero rises from the ashes in so much glorious triumph he shames the tragedy that brought him there. The story of Justin Echols is both.

Echols was busy living a hero’s life in 2003 as an Oklahoma City police officer reactivated from the Army Reserves to train green recruits and reservists to be military police during Operation Iraqi Freedom when tragedy struck. Echols was in a head-on collision that sent him into six months of rehab to regain his mobility from inoperable spinal fractures and changed the course of his life forever.

“My life changed at that point. The accident took me from being me to being handicapped,” he said. Echols’ mother moved in with him, along with her piano. He started playing and he found his superpower.

“During this period I found the piano. It was my personal music therapy. I picked it up very quickly. In one year, I was playing Bach and Beethoven,” he said.

Echols was so good, his agent sent his recording to Jazz-great, Winston Marsalis. Echols was beckoned to New York, where he started studying with Juilliard Professor Antonio Ciacca. Ciacca was also the Director of Programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

But Echols was still a police officer with the Oklahoma City police officer, however with his injuries, the ladder for promotion was closed to him.

“The injuries that disqualified me for the US Army also made it impossible to be rise through the ranks as a police officer. My career was devastated by this injury so early in my career,” said Echols. “My chief has always been supportive of me and my music.”

For the next five years, Echols embarked on an incredible and harrowing journey as policeman by day, musician by night. He worked as a school resource officer from Monday through Friday. Then he hopped on a plane to New York to study at Juilliard and perform on the weekends. On school breaks and summer vacations, he toured internationally, touching base mostly in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Echols hit the top of the Jazz scene, racking awards and accomplishments one after another.

“I had almost exhausted everything,” Echols said.

He has performed at Lincoln center, which he describes as the “Carnegie Hall for jazz”. He was named as one of the top performers for luxury hotels by Forbes Magazine in 2012, which led to regular shows at The Artesian Hotel in Sulphur. Echols also became nearly an Artist in Residence at the Hefner Grill, where he still performs occasionally. He garnered a record deal and is still featured in at least 3 to 4 major publications every year.

Probably his greatest triumph was being inducted as the youngest member into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012.

“I was so very quickly able to achieve what most other people are chasing. I have slept in wings of castles where I played for heads of state. I have driven up to see my name in lights. It has normalized to me so I have to find other reasons to do it,” Echols said.

“I don’t think of myself functionally anymore. Music has become simply an extension of my humanity. I don’t think of myself as a policeman; I do not think of myself as a musician. It (music) is part of me, not all of me. Life is even bigger than music. It is too small for me to say I am a musician (or policeman). I am neither and both” he said.

Currently, Echols is Master Sergeant in the OCPD FACT mentoring program for at risk youth. He is also branching out with his talent with a new instrument and genre – blues guitar.

“Musicians have the ability to speak the universal language so it is almost a mission to bring people together to build a peaceful interaction,” Echols said. “I have a passion for reinvesting myself in my community. I am passionate about being a bridge between law enforcement and my community. I have a perspective and appeal in both worlds that will hopefully allow me to bridge the gap between both sides.”

Echols is not touring right now, but represents the Oklahoma City Police Department as a motivational speaker as well as mentoring youth. He is very happy about a slower pace as it allows him time for his family.

“I am not going to regret missing fathering,” he said.

Echols said he is progressing quickly with mastering the guitar so he has no idea how fast this new path will take him.

“Music has a deeper meaning than external. There was a time when I wanted to be the best. It was about proving I had value. The meaning has changed. It is more intangible and spiritual. It is how I impact humanity in this community,” he said.