Showbiz is like that: The unforeseen swing revival of the 1980s and ’90s granted Austin’s Nash Hernández Orchestra, now celebrating its 70th anniversary, a rare chance at a second chapter.
"In 1999, we did 100 shows," says Ruben Hernández, who has led the band since 1995, the year after his father, who founded the namesake band in 1949, died. "That's a lot for a 12-piece act. Donn's Depot was our home base. We’d play Donn's till 1 a.m., then we packed up the gear and set up for the Sunday night show over at Top of the Marc. We’d get some sleep and be back at 7 p.m. It was a busy time. Austin had a dedicated jazz station. The Warehouse District was home to a jazz festival."
Put together by trumpet player Ignacio "Nash" Hernández during the first American jazz big-band craze, the group was always a family affair that included his active wife and their five children. Few Austin musical ensembles measure their stories in decades, but the Hernandez brood and their versatile bandmates, who specialize in Latin as well as American swing, toss out anniversaries with the ease of Glenn Miller’s trombone slides in "Moonlight Serenade."
"Next year, it will be 50 years that I will have been playing with the band," says Ruben, 60, who mans the drums. "I started playing the drums when I was 5, and I joined the band when I was 11."
For 70 years, the band has been known for musical versatility and wider cultural impact.
"He was the first band with a Mexican American flavor to ever play at my high school,'' former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos told the American-Statesman in 1999. "Nash Hernández had it all. He could play Glenn Miller, country and good old Chicano polkas.''
When the band toasted its 50th anniversary in 1999, Austin music writer John T. Davis rhapsodized about the group’s personal connection with a broader jazz heritage.
"Somewhere, in some celestial nightclub in a vision of heaven that looks suspiciously like Harlem, circa 1930," he wrote, "Nash Hernández — sharing a martini with Benny Goodman and Count Basie, no doubt — is smiling."
Double the impact
Band founder Ignacio "Nash" Hernández and his wife, Minnie Salinas Hernández, brought a good deal of Central Texas heritage to their marriage in 1944. Together and separately, they made a profound impact on local culture.
Nash was born in New Braunfels in 1922. He grew up in Fredericksburg, where he learned to play trumpet in high school. He moved to Austin, Minnie’s hometown, right after World War II.
Minnie, the youngest of seven children, was born in Austin in 1924, the daughter of politically active Frank Salinas, an immigrant from Mexico, and Narcissa Salinas, a native Texan. Together, they established a family hub on Haskell Street in East Austin.
Minnie and Nash had five children: Nash Jr., Dora, Dave, Elena and Ruben, the youngest and current bandleader.
Although Minnie did not have a formal education, she rarely shirked a leadership role in East Austin, where she helped raise a generation of Hernándezes on Holly Street.
"Back then in the culture, girls were supposed to be taking care of the house, cooking and cleaning," Ruben says. "She went to Palm School, but after the fourth grade, she had to stay home to help take care of her sister and brothers. She hated that, because she loved school. In fact, she learned a lot on her own. She spoke out when she saw things wrong."
Ruben’s sister Dora says that their parents were progressive for their time, but Minnie had to overcome a prevailing social expectation that she should stay somewhat in the background.
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"Being a second-generation American of Mexican descent, the culture complicated things for her a bit further," Dora says. "My mom was the person that family, nearby friends and neighbors came to for assistance, or when they wanted to know where they could get city and state government information and/or services. Although my mom did not receive much schooling, she believed in the power of the vote. She did not hesitate to do battle as needed. For example, many years ago she spoke at an Austin City Council meeting against the Aquafest boat races, which, to put it mildly, were an infringement on our neighborhood — noise, unruly people, people parking along our driveways, etc."
Dora remembers that her mother battled racism all her life.
"One example: While shopping at the old Scarbrough department store waiting her turn at the register, the white saleswoman displayed obvious racist behavior toward a Hispanic middle-aged man," Dora recalls. "My mother called her on it but was ignored. Not one to be ignored, my mother made her way to the manager's office and let him know how the saleswoman had treated the ‘Mexican’ man, adding he needed to put a stop to that behavior. The manager was responsive, and the salesperson was removed from the floor."
Another relevant incident occurred when the Hernández children were still very young.
"Our next-door neighbor, a white man, electrified the fence between our houses," Dora says. "My mom called the police, and when they came, the man was ordered to de-electrify the fence. The man said he just wanted to make sure the ‘Mexicans’ would stay off his property — we were all under 11 years old."
While alert to injustice, Minnie also loved to dance and kept family life fun.
"She made tie-dye T-shirts for us, setting out boiling pots of dye out in the backyard," Dora says. "She was up every morning to make breakfast for us kids before we set off for school. No packaged cereal for us other than homemade oatmeal or cream of wheat. She'd make eggs and bacon with toast. She made our school lunch sandwiches and sent us off to school."
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"When I was at Austin High, Mom would go to all my sporting events," Ruben says. "People waved at her because they thought she was Wilhelmina Delco (Austin’s first African American school board member and later a longtime state representative). That’s unusual because one is black and the other is Hispanic, but they looked a lot alike. Just like my father looked like Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather.’ People would do a double take, especially when he was dressed up in a tuxedo."
Bandleader Nash took the traditional role of breadwinner, working in the dry cleaning business during the day and then on the bandstand at night — also for payday weddings and anniversaries.
"My dad was low-key but strong and confident in who he was," Dora says, "which was conveyed to us by his devotion to his family and how hard he worked to maintain a home for my mother and my siblings. In terms of his music, he did not look for recognition, especially when he used his orchestra for fundraising events. Knowing my dad, all the accolades he's received to date would be embarrassing to him. Being respected by his peers was enough for him."
Nash did not hang out with the guys after gigs.
"He was a homebody," Dora says, "although a little bird told me that he’d been quite the ladies man. But marriage eased him out of that life. He cared lot about us kids. … He took us to many rock concerts in Austin, dropped us off and picked us up after the shows. I recall him taking my brother Dave and I trick-or-treating before heading off to play. He did this while my mom dressed to join him at his gig. He wore his tuxedo, so many thought that was his costume. Contracts he signed for gigs always included a clause that my mom could attend and would get a table near the bandstand."
As close as Minnie and Nash were to each other and to their kids, they were not without faults.
"Don't get me wrong, like many of us can be, they could be ornery, certainly not perfect," Dora says. "Until they died, I don't believe any of us ever thought they would not be there for us. We were their focal point ... as was my dad's music, and my mom's dancing until Alzheimer’s stole that away from her. All in all, it was a good life, and I still miss them."
The horn player
During World War II, Nash Hernández — sometimes known as "Nacho" — was drafted to serve in the United States Air Corps Service. Immediately, his horn skills, honed during parades and polka parties in Fredericksburg, were put to work.
"He got out of some basic training because they needed a bugler," Ruben says. "He played ‘Reveille’ and ‘Taps’ while stationed up on a hill with a funnel horn. He situated his tent to be right next to it. He’d open the flap while he was still in bed, play, and then go back to sleep."
In Austin after the war, Nash played with Matt Velasquez and the Latineers before forming his own band in 1949, after which he was referred to as "Mr. Nash" by other musicians as a sign of respect. According to music historians, the Nash Hernández Orchestra played in the styles of Perez Prado, Xavier Cugat, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Besides club dates and social outings, the band performed at special events such as the annual Fiestas at Laguna Gloria Art Museum and at Gov. Dolph Briscoe's inaugural ball.
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"For a consistent sound and performance, Hernández required that all his band members be able to read music," his Handbook of Texas entry reads. "He taught note reading to area Mexican-American youths who went on to play in his orchestra."
Dave and Abel Gutíerrez, Tim Torres, Ruben Sanchez and Clifford Zirkel played with the band. Other musicians who got their start with Nash included Mike Mordecai, John Mills, Tomas Ramírez, Mitch Watkins, Paul Ostermayer and Steve Zirkel.
"You just look around at so many of the players that developed in the ’70s and ’80s, and if it hadn't been for Nash, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to start on our path,'' Mordecai said.
In the 1970s, Hernández started Sonora Royale de Nash Hernández, a side band that specialized in the music of tropical Latin groups.
Yet any Hernández player could accommodate a wide range of styles.
"I think the biggest thing for band alumni was the versatility,'' Ruben told the American-Statesman 20 years ago. "A lot of the Hispanic musicians grew up learning to play the swing stuff. Then the quote white or non-Hispanic unquote musicians came into the band never having played the Latin stuff. I think a lot of them enjoyed the chance to play stuff they had never had a chance to play before.''
Many Austin bands were not integrated during the orchestra’s early years.
"I once received a call, after my dad died, from a fellow from California who was surfing the net, saying he’d found the Nash Hernández Orchestra site and was thrilled to learn the orchestra was still playing," Dora says. "He told me that during the 1950s he wanted to play in a band such as my father’s, but no one would hire him because he was African American. But my dad did, adding he very much enjoyed playing with the band. Later there were other African Americans in the band, as well as a Russian studying at UT and a Hungarian, also studying at UT. Equality included women. He had a female drummer for a while and a female saxophonist — I think she was a nurse."
The band played parties in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, but mostly in Central Texas, including many a small-town American Legion hall. Yet he made only two records, and only one was released.
"I'm not sure why," Ruben says. "My impression was that he was never really worried about a recording career. The one LP we recorded in 1974, a guy in Waco paid for it. That took us to Zaz Recording Studio in San Antonio. We made another album, but it never got pressed. I'm sure those masters are gone."
According to the Handbook of Texas, Hernández was posthumously inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 1999. His orchestra was honored in 2001 with the Austin Latino Music Association’s Idolos Del Barrio Award. Festival Beach Road was renamed for Nash Hernández in 2006 as part of East Austin’s Trail of Tejano Legends. In 2008, he was an inaugural inductee into the Austin Music Memorial, and in 2018 a street was named for him in the Mueller Development.
One drummer son
Not long ago, the Nash Hernández Orchestra added glamour to the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum’s popular garden party. As dusk fell on an enchanted setting above Barton Springs, guests heard the urgent, swelling sounds of horns and woodwinds, broke away from the party’s seductive parade of food, wine and socializing, and glided over to the dance floor.
There, they were transported to the 1940s at a time when buoyant, brash Americans Lindy Hopped on VE and VJ days. Or to the 1950s when Americans danced the rumba to the beat of Ricky Ricardo — a fictionalized version of Desi Arnaz —and his band at the Tropicana Club, broadcast on the country’s favorite sitcom, "I Love Lucy." Or to the 1960s when the Rat Pack ruled Las Vegas and Americans headed to that gaudy spot in the desert where big band music still held its own against the ascendant rock ‘n’ roll.
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Among the kids, Nash Jr. played the trumpet and marched with the Longhorn Band, while Elena played trombone in school bands. Dave and Ruben drummed. Yet Ruben was a natural successor as bandleader.
"When he was dying in the hospital, we talked a lot about it," Ruben says. "It was already a given. We knew. I started in the band when I was 11. I had played with other bands but always played with Dad’s band too."
Ruben attended Austin public schools. His older brother Dave played drums with the family band first. Dave also drummed with rock and country acts.
"He showed me some drumbeats to a Led Zeppelin song," Ruben says. "Then other songs. If Dave was late, I rehearsed with Dad’s band."
These days, Ruben works as a budget analyst for the Bureau of Fiscal Service in the U.S. Department of Treasury. He previously worked for the Internal Revenue Service, leading to a total of 27 years with the federal government.
Before his federal service, Ruben tried to make music his full-time gig.
"I was in the Longhorn Band, too," he says. "I only did it for a year and a half. Studied music theory and composition and played in the UT Symphony and the Jazz Ensemble."
Ruben also branched out from the family brand.
"I played in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in Zilker Park in the 1970s," Ruben says. "It irritated Dad because I missed some gigs. Then I started branching out and playing other music with other bands, pushing more rock ’n’ roll, the Chicago sound, then some Michael Jackson material, as well Earth, Wind & Fire. Later I traveled a lot, playing more country music."
Ruben’s closest shot at the big time was drumming for singer-songwriter Aaron Barker, who was signed by Atlantic.
"He had a hit with ‘Sticks and Stones,’" Ruben says. "But Atlantic was distracted by other artists, and by the time they got back to Aaron, he was moving on, writing No. 1 hits for George Strait and other artists. They dropped him."
Next, Ruben signed on with Scott Hoyt, a former member of the Grass Roots who worked regularly but did not attract interest from the major labels.
"We were opening up for Tim McGraw and a lot of the major country acts in the 1990s," Ruben says. "But I always played gigs with my dad. Then my dad’s health started taking a turn for the worse. Scott had been my full-time job. So I had to find employment here, and I transitioned out of Scott's group."
A few months passed after Nash’s death before the orchestra reassembled, in 1995, under Ruben and Dave’s leadership. Ruben took over as sole bandleader in 1996.
The band’s next renaissance coincided with the swing revival, a time when young women who danced along to that cultural trend wore their skirts dance-ready and their hair in the style of 1950s pinup model Bettie Page. Club guys often ended up looking like Texas sensation Dino Lee’s onstage persona, Mr. Fabulous.
"I was playing with Lee at Speakeasy one night and during the break was looking at the pictures on the wall of old bands," Ruben says. "One was of my dad’s band. I told the club owner that the band was still around, so he booked us. We made a circuit of the Continental Club, Caucus Club, Top of the Marc, Donn’s Depot. We picked up a whole lot of young fans along the way."
In the 21st century, the gigs faded. Post-disco DJs made a comeback at weddings. These days, the 12-piece band plays 60 to 70 dates a year.
"Everybody has a day job," Ruben says. "They do it because they love it. Most of them played with my dad. Some have been in the band 40 years or more. They love the Hernández family. If we are playing a lot, it's good; if not, they are OK with that."
Some things about the orchestra never change, however, and its sound is still romantic.
"We do cha-chas, boleros, mambos, the Latin big-band sound," Ruben says. "Perez Prado’s ‘Que Rico Mambo’ has been part of our repertoire for 70 years, or at least 60 since I’ve been around. We still do ‘In the Mood’ and ‘String of Pearls.’ My dad was known for ‘Stardust.’ He was the crooner with a horn, playing with a handsome, full, fat sound, kind of like if Sinatra was a trumpet. He was a handsome man who had dreamy eyes when he played."
Every once in a while, somebody will suggest that the orchestra step away from its big-band jazz legacy.
"We are a niche band," Ruben says. "I think the most recent song we play is Al Green’s ‘Let's Stay Together’ from 1972. Some people ask, ’Why not do other music?’ Because we're the Nash Hernández Orchestra. This what we were; this is what we are."