Outstanding Spirit and Lots of Passion: Rivers Combo Earns Success at Annual Mingus Festival

The Rivers School Select Combo 1 earned great honors at the 16th annual Charles Mingus High School Competition and Festival, held February 16–18 at the New School in NYC. Created to uphold the legacy of legendary jazz composer and musician Charles Mingus, one of the most important figures in 20th-century American music, the festival brings together top high school bands from across the country. Under the leadership of director Philippe Crettien, Rivers’ Select Combo 1 won several distinctions, coming away with the Mingus Spirit Award, Outstanding Front Line Award (for the front line team of Arianna Martinez Cavero ’24, Ethan Kasparian Weisman ’24, and Jack Benson ’24, and an Outstanding Soloist award, given to Kasparian Weisman. 

Members of the Mingus family have kept the legacy alive through the annual festival, now sponsored by the Charles Mingus Institute, and educational programming. The goal of the competition is to “provide an opportunity for high school music students to explore the wide-ranging works of Charles Mingus…and to find their own individual voices within the music.”

Since the first year of Rivers’ participation in 2009, when Rivers Big Band and Select 1 Combo were finalists in the competition, Rivers has become a finalist (invited to participate in the competition) nine times. Being named a finalist is itself a significant achievement, as each category (divided into Big Band and Combo, and specialized vs. traditional schools) has only three finalists and the competition is steep. 

The eight students in Rivers Select Combo 1 operate as a small jazz group (functionally a sextet, as two pianists and drummers alternate sets), with improvised solos a part of every performance. 

For Crettien, winning the Mingus Spirit Award is one of the most meaningful achievements a group can earn at the competition. Jack Willard ’24, one of the group’s pianists, agreed: “To me, winning the Mingus Spirit Award is even more significant than winning the Combo category, as it shows that we as a band were able to embody the spirit of Charles Mingus,” shared Willard. 

The Outstanding Front Line Award, which honored Benson on trumpet, Martinez Cavero on violin, and Kasparian Weisman on saxophone and clarinet, was a new category this year that particularly honored the “horn section” at the front of the ensemble. 

Members of the Select 1 Combo also had much to say on the experience, which, many said, was all about connecting with people. 

The Saturday workshops and jam sessions allowed for participants to meet other high school students and learn from the seasoned musicians of the Mingus Big Band, such as Boris Kozlov and Donald Edward, who were on hand to coach the high school students. “It was amazing to meet all the professionals who were there,” shared Martinez Cavero. 

Benson said, “I got to meet one of my trumpet idols, Ingrid Jensen, who gave me some great feedback on my performance.”

Some other takeaways from the masterclass: “‘Don’t take the jazz out of the jazz’ and ‘go with the flow,’” said Gabe Manasseh ’26, a drummer for the ensemble.

One coaching session “completely changed the feel of one of my solos,” said Kasparian Weisman. 

As outstanding soloist, Kasparian Weisman had the additional honor of playing with the Mingus Big Band Sunday night after awards concluded, along with Benson, who was also invited to join.

But at the end of the day, the greatest reward comes from the act of music-making itself. Said bassist Nathan Manasseh ’24, “Listening to music from legends is cool and all, but the most fun I had was from actually playing it.”

What’s next for these talented jazz musicians? Rivers Honors Big Band will compete in the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education (MAJE) Big Band competition on Tuesday, February 27, before departing for a musical and cultural trip to Cuba on March 10. 

Rivers Select 1 Combo:
Ethan Kasparian Weisman ’24, Alto Saxophone, Clarinet
Arianna Martinez Cavero ’24, violin
Jack Benson ’24, trumpet
Jack Willard ’24, piano
Noah Springhorn ’24, piano
Nathan Manasseh ’24, bass
Gabe Manasseh ’26, drums
Gavin Bollar ’27, drums

View a performance from the festival. 
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