Platt-itudes can’t express Wellesley’s thanks to retiring music educator

Recently I received an intriguing email that read in part: I don’t know if you knew this, but a legendary WMS teacher, Henry Platt, WMS Band and Jazz Band Director for 28 years, has decided to retire at the end of this school year.  Henry has been a life changer for so many young Wellesley instrumentalists, igniting their passion for jazz and the classics, and preparing them so well for the rigorous WHS program.  Having inspired hundreds if not thousands of kids, Henry more than deserves some accolades.  

Henry Platt head shot
Retiring WMS Band Director Henry Platt in action. Photo credit: Zhang family

Accolades, indeed, and why not throw in an exit interview, Swellesley Report-style. I sat down with Henry Platt in the WMS band room, his domain for so many years, to find out all about his time here in town. Here’s the unvarnished truth, in Q and A format.

Swellesley Report: How many years have you taught music?

Henry Platt: I have 32 years of teaching overall. I taught for four years in the town of Whitman before I came here to Wellesley, and I’ve been in Wellesley for 28 years. I also worked as an Associate Professor at the Boston Conservatory, but middle school is my favorite.

Swellesley Report: How did you personally start out in music?

Henry Platt: My mother was a folk singer in the great folk movement of the 50s and 60s. She was inspired by the great Joan Baez. We spent our summers on Rhode Island, down on the island of Jamestown, and when the folk festivals came, there were all these young people playing folk music all over the place. They were in the downtown area playing. They were playing on the bus. They had  hootenannies at the Yacht Club. And that kind of got me interested so I started fooling around with my mother’s guitar. I started taking guitar lessons and became your typical American rock and roll guitar kid playing in bands in middle school and in high school. I kept gravitating toward more intricate forms of playing, and I got very interested in blues guitar music as a high schooler and eventually progressed toward jazz music.  I went to Tufts and got a degree in ethnomusicology to study blues guitar styles and banjo styles. I did a lot of field work in the south recording old time musicians.

I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston and got a degree there in jazz guitar and music education. At that point I was debating whether to teach ethnomusicology at the college level. And then one day I went with a friend to Hingham high school and I heard the jazz band there and I thought, this is it for me . Here were kids playing this wonderful music really well and I felt that was a really great way to work. So I got a music ed degree, student taught in Hingham, got my first job in Whitman and then came here in 1988

Swellesley Report: What music did you play in middle school?

Henry Platt: In middle school I played bass. I came up through this folk music thing. My mother was singing folk songs all the time. In elementary school my childhood hero was Bob Dylan. Of course, Bob Dylan’s music, if you analyze it and listen to it, points you in the direction of the earlier forms of music. I was 11 at summer camp when he came out with Like A Rolling Stone, but I’d been familiar with all his earlier stuff. It was a good education to be exposed to that music back then because I’m still very much teaching about it in my music classes here.

Back then I had a transistor radio, and I used to sit awake at night listening to radio broadcasts from Nashville from the Grand Ole Opry. That was a great education for me to hear that kind of music while living in Philadelphia because you didn’t hear that kind of music unless you were listening to the radio late at night.

Swellesley Report: What’s your favorite radio station here?

Henry Platt: WHRB (Harvard’s student-run station), 95.3. All morning they play jazz music, and then they play classical music until something like a hockey game comes along. That’s a wonderful radio station and it’s all run by students. They have orgies too. During reading period they’ll do something like play the entire recorded works of Bach or all of Charlie Parker, or something like that.

Theres a good one in Worcester too, WICN, which is a jazz program as well. The Boston area has great radio programming.

Swellesley Report: Do you make music now?

Henry Platt: I play jazz guitar and bass. I have a jazz quartet and we play all kinds of different functions. We are playing for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s 20th anniversary at Elm Bank on June 2. We’ll play swing jazz. My favorite kind of gig is to play for a wedding when we play during cocktail hour while the bride and groom and their families are having their pictures taken.

Swellesley Report: Can you tell me about your practice schedule?

Henry Platt: I practice every day, when I get home I usually practice for an hour or two. I run through tunes. I was fortunate to study with some great teachers at Berklee who had a lot of influence on me, particularly John Damian. Playing guitar for a jazz group, whether you’re playing rhythm guitar or solo, there’s a lot of work involved. It takes a lot of time and practice.

Swellesley Report: It’s said that you really prepare the kids well for the rigors of the high school program.

Henry Platt: Well I’m glad to hear that. I think a big part of  my job is to get them excited about it and to realize that it is a discipline and it takes a good deal of effort, not only to learn to play the instrument but to be part of an ensemble and to learn how to listen while you’re playing in the group.

Swellesley Report: What about the Wellesley Town Band. When did that start?

Henry Platt: That started about 3 years ago when I had a visit from Herb Glick, and Herb wanted to start a town band. Herb had started playing the trombone in retirement, and he came along and here was a guy who was ready to make it happen. And so we combined forces with the rec department and we started out with 12 or 15 people. Our first gig was at Elm Bank for the Festival of Trees. We were able to fit in their space back then. But by the second year we’d doubled in size. And now there are 30 something people in the band. There are a lot of people in that band whose kids I’ve taught.

Swellesley Report: Do you have any memorable Wellesley Middle School stories?

Henry Platt: Gosh. There are two that come to mind. The first one was the visit of Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev in 1990. They were the speakers at the Wellesley College graduation, and it was announced maybe the day before that they were going to come by the middle school. The entire school was going to go out and greet them, and preparations were made, and we decided we were going to have the band play for them. So we took the eighth grade band out and we played God Bless America as they came by. They stopped and got out of the car and waved, then they got back in the car and drove off. That was an interesting moment.

You tend to think of major moments that happened while you were in school. I remember 9/11 very vividly, because I was the first person in the building to know about it. I was on the phone with a parent and she got a call beeped in from her son in New York who said someone just flew into the World Trade Center. At that point I went into the office — we had a TV in the office at that time — and I said you’d better turn on the television. By noon the whole school knew. It was really something.

But every day here is a great day. There’s a bright moment every day. There are so many wonderful moments that happen in the classroom all the time, like yesterday we had a little jam session in the seventh grade music class where there were four kids who started playing this house jam blues music that sounded like something from western Loiusiana. The violin player was playing this sort of Cajun blues thing that really sounded extremely professional.

Swellesley Report: What are some of the high points of your career?

Henry Platt: The kids just keep growing so much in middle school. The daily growth is remarkable at this age. It’s the time of the greatest amount of growth. By the time they get out of middle school they can really play.

Another great story — I taught at the hight school for most of the 90s — and again, back in the Bush era we got a call from the White House on a Friday asking would you play at a fund raiser for President Bush? And the superintendent decided we were going to play, so we had maybe one day to learn how to play Hail to the Chief. At the last minute he didn’t come, Dan Quayle came, so we had to switch to Hail Columbia. We went down to the Copley Plaza and we played for what was basically the Boston-area Republican party, and it was really fun. It was a great experience. It was a great education for the kids.

Swellesley Report: Have you won any awards over the years?

Henry Platt: Yeah, the jazz band has won a lot of medals at the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Educators jazz festival. We’ve always done well at that.

Swellesley Report: What about your family?

Henry Platt: My son’s a guitar teacher. He teaches here in Wellesley, my wife is a massage therapist, and my daughter is a personal trainer.

Swellesley Report: Who has been your inspiration?

Henry Platt: I had a great teacher before Berklee, Guy Van Duser, who came up with the solo guitar arrangement of the Stars and Stripes Forever. Going from folk guitar into jazz guitar, he was the perfect sort of person to lead me towards that because my guitar playing is classically based. I had classical guitar lessons in Philadelphia, which was great. When you learn that finger style when you’re 9 or 10 years old, it stays with you.

Swellesley Report: What are three words that describe your time in Wellesley?

Henry Platt: Oh gosh. Inspiring is one of them. I’m constantly inspired by the kids. It’s been a fabulous run. It’s a great community. One of my professors at New England Conservatory once said, “You find a community that you like, and you give them your career.” That pretty much sums it up. I was really lucky to land here.

Caring and supportive are my two other words. This is an incredibly supportive community for the arts, and the school community has always struck me as extremely caring not only about the students but about each other. Being here so long you learn the town on so many levels. I walk into Town Meeting, and I know a lot of people there. I’ve had a lot of their kids. It’s amazing to me to just think back about all the great students I’ve had and see what they’re all doing now.

Swellesley Report: Have any of your students gone on to conservatory or professional careers?

Henry Platt: Absolutely. There have been quite a few. And there are even a couple who have become middle school band teachers. This middle school program has a lot to offer for kids in the arts. In addition to chorus, band, and orchestra you have drama, the different jazz groups, and huge involvement and enthusiasm from the parents. They come in to Wellesley attracted by the schools, and the offerings in the arts is just a wonderful thing.

Swellesley Report: What’s your advice to the person who next picks up the baton?

Henry Platt: I would say that they would have to really have  a strong affinity for kids at this age and an understanding of what kids at this age are all about . I think that this program is a great place for someone to come and take it over and take it to the next level, even. The job requires someone with a good deal of versatility because there’s a big general music component. It’s not just the band, it’s 6th, 7th, and 8th grade general music class. Someone coming in has to really love kids at this age.

When I came her from Whitman I was attracted by the job because at that point it struck me how middle school students are capable of enormous artistic expression for their age group. That’s always been with me and is one of the things that kept me coming back to it. But you know at some point you have to pass it on to someone else.

Swellesley Report: What’s next for you?

Henry Platt: Retirement. I’ll continue to conduct the Town Band, and I’ll play with my own group. I like wind surfing. Travel. Do music. Do my own music. I’ll do a lot of writing and production stuff of my own. I like electronic music. I started the computer music program here in 1989, and we started out with little Mac plus computers.

I think our new director Sabrina Quintana is great and will do great things in Wellesley.

I told the kids last week because two girls approached me and said, “We heard you’re retiring,” so I knew the word had gotten out. I stay till June 30. And I’ll still do the Town Band. We’re playing this year at Wellesley’s Wonderful Weekend, and we’re playing at Elm Bank for the Gardeners’ Fair on May 14. The Town Band came along at the perfect time. I can still be involved in Wellesley and still stay in this wonderful community through the Town Band. This is my music town, definitely.

Swellesley Report: So it’s not good bye to Mr. Platt, it’s just farewell. Thanks for all the music you’ve given us in the past, and for all the music that’s to come, Henry. And thank goodness for a wise New England Conservatory professor who once told a young musician,  “You find a community that you like, and you give them your career.”