Edward “Jose” Hernandez used to sneak across from his home on Queen Street to peek in the windows of the American Legion building. He'd been drawn by the sounds of music, and even sitting at the very fringes of the room, he was enthralled by the hands he could hear playing. Right then and there, Hernandez said he knew he wanted to be a musician. On Feb. 18, Hernandez is returning to his hometown to the Carlyle Club for a concert celebrating Black History Month.
“It feels great,” said Hernandez. “It’s my first time in years coming back, other than to see family. I’m coming back to perform for a lot of my friends ... and my mentor Arthur Dawkins.”
Hernandez graduated from Parker-Gray High School in 1965 and was already an accomplished musician, performing as the principal oboist National Jewish Community Center Headquarters Orchestra and the National Youth Art Gallery Orchestra as the second oboist. Hernandez has performed with bands like The Whispers, Joe Williams and Patti Austin.
Hernandez said growing up in Alexandria was a unique experience that shaped the evolution of his music.
“My mother was black, my father was Hispanic,” said Hernandez. “During the pre-and-post civil rights era, there was a lot of blues and jazz in Alexandria. At the same time, teachers like Dawkins helped me get focused on reading music and giving me a pretty staunch background in the classics. I used all of that experience, put together a band in high school. We used to perform little gigs around town.”
Dawkins was a music teacher at Parker-Gray High School, the all black high school in Alexandria that closed when Alexandria’s schools were integrated.
“Hernandez was in my last band,” said Dawkins. “He was one of the last ones, and he was very talented as a high school student.”
Dawkins said the story of the school is a part of the story of black Americans in Alexandria and the kind of thing he’s happy to see the people who lived through it, like Hernandez, honoring. Dawkins said it reminded him of the teachers and the inspiration he had when he was coming up through the same school
“The school itself is not as important as the institution,” said Dawkins. “The school was a building, I attended it myself in high school. It’s the notion of the black experience, of a school in a segregated city, a school that survived and thrived [is what’s important]. All the black teachers we had, it made us really celebrate black history. The whole issue of having to work very hard to accomplish as much as we did ... we had good models that we took advantage of.”
For Hernandez, his return comes with mixed emotions. The day before the concert he’s playing for a funeral for a family member. But there’s some excitement as well, because a chance to return to the east coast is a chance to play for family and friends who haven’t heard him play before.
“There’s a lot of family that hasn’t heard me play, but knew I was a musician,” said Hernandez. “It will be fun and interesting, gratifying — playing for them. I’ve got good family and a hell of a lot of good friends. To get a chance on a personal level to perform for my hometown buddies and family, that's a rewarding experience. It’s humbling.”
The concert will be held at the Carlyle Club on 2050 Ballenger Ave. Doors open at 4 p.m. and the show starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $38 in advance.