Pianist and retired police officer Justin Echols shares the power of music.
In 2004, veteran and Oklahoma City police officer Justin Echols endured a catastrophic, head-on car accident that changed his life. He suffered severe brain and spinal injuries, and he thought he would be required to resign from the police force and be unable to provide for his children and aging mother. “It was a time of fear,” Echols recalled. While recovering, he found listening to jazz music therapeutic. The sounds of Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong soothed him when he awoke at night and could not fall back asleep.
Echols sang in church choir as a child but never had regular access to a piano. When his mother moved in with him after the accident, she brought one, and he was immediately drawn to it. “I had an ear for it, instantly,” he said. “Because of growing up in church choir, I had an intuitive ear for harmony. I started tinkering with melodies.”
While recovering the same year, Echols had the opportunity to sing “America the Beautiful” with a big band orchestra for the Oklahoma City Police Department. “I recognized the other songs they were playing,” he said. “I asked them to play ‘When I Fall in Love,’ and singing for the first time with an orchestra gave me chills.” Shortly after, he acquired Harry Connick Jr.’s new release at the time, the CD/DVD set Other Hours. After watching it, Echols decided that if he couldn’t be a police officer again, he wanted to be a jazz pianist.
“I called the director of the orchestra that I had sung with and asked her to give me piano lessons,” Echols said. “Within a year, I was playing Bach and Beethoven.” When Echols was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012, just six years after he started playing piano, he was both working as an instructor for the police academy and flying into New York on many weekends to meet with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and then-Juilliard professor Antonio Ciacca. He received South OKC Chamber’s Native Son Award in 2019 and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame Legacy Award in 2021. He retired from his position as police officer in May.
While recognizing the honor of these awards and feeling great excitement about his upcoming national tour with Kristin Chenoweth, Echols nodded and said, “I’ve still got the larger part of my career left.” He acknowledges that after the acclaim early in his career, he’s lost much of his youthful excitement about the limelight. He is now focused on what he wants his personal legacy to be. “I want my life to be as impactful as my music.”
He continued, “I love playing the national anthem in a packed bar, by me, a Black man, a former veteran and police officer. It’s a way of inviting all Americans into that moment. A cowboy may be sitting next to me, holding my hand and singing ‘America the Beautiful.’ That moment is true to my story. I’m compelled to believe that there is still something that I’m supposed to do.”
His musical path forward could be to continue touring on large international stages, or to open a bar and lounge of his own closer to home. Either way, Echols wants to use the power of music for good. “I’m thinking about what I can do to have a positive impact on culture,” he said. “I want to play songs that change people’s lives.”