Plato, Socrates, and Jazz

Concert and forum connect jazz, children, and philosophy


During his undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon, Torrey Newhart focused primarily on music. But he also found that he had such a deep passion for reading philosophy that he pursued a minor in the subject. “I believe that thinking about philosophy opens people up to perspectives other than their own and challenges people to think more broadly on any and all issues,” Newhart, now a Eugene jazz musician, explains. “This translates to my music when I’m improvising or composing, because it serves as a constant reminder that there are no limits to what one can do.”

Newhart’s twin passions converge this Saturday, May 21, when his jazz quintet provides a musical wrap-up to a two-day event that explores “teaching children and adolescents how to engage in critical thinking through philosophical inquiry,” according to the I Never Thought About it That Way! forum’s web site. Newhart’s ensemble will perform his original music influenced by philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Simone De Beauvoir.

Musician, composer, educator Torrey Newhart.

Musician, composer, educator Torrey Newhart.

Saturday night’s “The Philosophy of Jazz” event at the Broadway Avenue House Concerts includes original and familiar tunes played by Newhart on keyboard, Josh Hettwer on tenor sax, his brother Matt on trombone, bassist Lyle Hopkins, and Ken Mastrogiovanni on drums. “The title definitely comes from the performance’s connection to the philosophy talks during the day and since I have a handful of pieces that are directly related to and named after people in philosophy or philosophical concepts, it just made sense!” Newhart says. “The only direct connection to philosophy in the music itself is that we cover a broad range of styles and I hope the listener will join me in a journey of questioning what makes music, music.”

The show features two of Torrey Newhart’s own philosophically themed pieces. The four-movement Sage Passage Suite was inspired in part by Newhart’s reading of Plato and Socrates’s Dialogues as well as other philosophers, Newhart explained in an ArtsWatch interview. Part I: “The Sage” is “a meditation on the process of persistent questioning and the greater understanding that can be the result of it.” For Newhart, this reflects a philosophical tradition based on an understanding of Socrates.

Josh Hettwer (tenor sax), Matt Hettwer (trombone), Ken Mastrogiovanni (drums). Photo: G. Ferrington.

Josh Hettwer (tenor sax), Matt Hettwer (trombone), Ken Mastrogiovanni (drums). Photo: G. Ferrington.

Part II: “Cartesian Reign Clouds” instrumentally leads the listener on an emotional reflection on Western thought since Descartes and the idea that there is a separation of the mind from the physical world as evidence in the solving of problems through applied science.

The experience of realizing “how much potential you have by analyzing the moments in which you fail” is the theme of Part III: “Critique” which hints at Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The suite then circle around and ends with “Where Do We Go From Now?” which Newhart notes is the ultimate question and “the possibility that we have come full circle; creative and reflective inquiry leads to enlightenment. Perhaps this question remains continually relevant while life is a process of constant change.”

4_Lyle and Ken

Lyle Hopkins (bass) and and Ken Mastrogiovanni (percussion) Photo: G. Ferrington.

Newhart’s Beauvoir is dedicated to the feminist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex. “I wanted to dedicate a piece to Beauvoir because of what a pivotal role she played in women’s rights and gender equity and this seemed to work,” he says. “Respecting standards and tradition while pushing the boundaries — this seems to be something she did and so does this piece.”

Philosophy for Children

The forum, sponsored by the University of Oregon, the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, and the Eugene School District 4J, intends to bring attention to Eugene’s growing philosophy for children movement. While unfamiliar to most in the States, it’s a part of the curriculum in many countries. Childhood curiosity is ripe for exploring philosophy, according to the University of Washington’s Center For Philosophy for Children, as they ask questions about being fair; why they are alive; what makes someone a friend, or not; what is right and wrong; do animals have rights and other topics young minds question. Children wonder about the world, and philosophy, the Center suggests, provides them with “the skills to think critically and to develop deep analytic and reasoning skills.”

The forum begins Friday evening, May 20, with an opening keynote address by Peter Worley, a multi-award winning author and leading British scholar and practitioner of philosophical inquiry for children and young adults. A follow-up panel discussion, with audience participation, concludes day one.

UO Philosophy instructor Paul Bodin, co-organizer of the forum and venue host for the Torrey Newhart Quintet, shares teaching children philosophy at Eugene’s Edison Elementary school.

Saturday offers a full day of concurrent sessions related to exploring ethics, metaphysics and environmental philosophy with children and adolescents. The forum is free and open to the public and it is stressed that a background in philosophy is not necessary to participate.

A3 Choir Director Torrey Newhart. Photo: Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard.

A3 Choir Director Torrey Newhart. Photo: Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard.

Newhart, who teaches music and choir at Springfield’s Academy of Arts & Academics (A3) High School besides being an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon, will be involved in the form’s events earlier in the day. “I am constantly looking for ways to improve my teaching and believe that it is most effective to reach high school students through broader concepts – philosophy lends itself to this,” he explains. “I’ve also always wanted to teach a philosophy class and the preface of [Worley’s book] Provocations lays out a way of perceiving the role of an instructor in a classroom in a way that I aspire towards personally.

“I hope that people will come join us and support the great work that is being done within education and getting philosophy taught to younger and younger students,” Newhart continues. “It seems vitally important for the health of our population that people are having these kinds of discussions. Much better than watching television for 3-4 hours each day. Get out and talk! Listen to live music! Experience other people!”

Torrey Newhart Quintet performs The Philosophy of Jazz on Saturday, May 21, 9:00 pm, at Broadway Avenue House Concerts, 911 W. Broadway, Eugene. For reservations, e-mail Paul Bodin at or leave a message at 541-686-9270.

I Never Thought About it That Way! free public forum, including lunch, Friday night and Saturday, May 20-21, at the Eugene District 4J Education Building, 200 N. Monroe, Eugene. Details and registration available online.

A behind the scenes look at the recording of Torrey Newhart’s debut album “Marmara” (2014).

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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