A musician, Seth Kibel puts about 30,000 miles on his navy-blue Toyota RAV4 Hybrid every year. He travels up and down the mid-Atlantic, playing klezmer and jazz, blues and rock & roll. He typically has a full schedule of five or six gigs a week — with the Alexandria Kleztet, which he founded in 1998, or the Bay Jazz Project, the blues and swing band Natty Beaux, or as a sideman.
He’s shared the stage with numerous A-list musicians, including Percy Sledge, The Coasters, and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, or you may have heard him onstage at The Kennedy Center, Carter Barron Amphitheatre and virtually every synagogue social hall in the area.
“I’m not currently a member of a synagogue,” he said wryly, “but in my various gigs, I’ve spent time in almost every shul in the Washington-Baltimore area,” playing weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, adult education classes on Jewish jazz and the like.
But now, like the rest of the world, Kibel — along with his clarinet, flute and saxophone — is sidelined.
Spring is typically a busy season for independent musicians — from weddings to society events and fundraisers, swing dances and klezmer concerts, outdoor community shows and ticketed theater events — Kibel is on the run.
But these days, he has nowhere to blow his horn. And his RAV4 sits in the driveway — even as low gas prices and no traffic taunt him.
“As with most artists, every single thing I do is on a non-salary basis,” he explained. “My income completely went to zero almost overnight” as theaters, entertainment venues, restaurants and bars throughout the region all closed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. “It is a real tough time,” Kibel noted, “but having said that, I’m in a better position than a lot of people, because my beautiful wife, Sandy, has a steady job and she has health insurance.
“Weeks ago, when the coronavirus first started to appear in very small numbers in United States, I lost just a few gigs,” he added. “I do a fair number of shows playing senior centers or retirement communities. Those were the first to go. I also do swing dances; those were cancelled quickly as well, because … well, dancing with partners is a germ factory.”
He initially thought he and his musician colleagues would lose some work, but not all. “Then, over the course of two or three days, everything disappeared from my schedule,” he said, his voice sinking.
The 45-year-old Yorktown Heights, N.Y., native majored in American studies and music at Cornell University, which, he said, “leaves you well qualified upon graduation to do absolutely nothing.” But with hard work and innate business sense and a bit of chutzpah, he has built a career as a multifaceted freelance musician. “As a professional musician in this day and age, if you like to eat,” Kibel said, “it behooves you to diversify.”
So Kibel got creative. Joined by his teenage son, Will, on piano, the two played their first hour-long “Live From the Basement” concert the last Wednesday in March, livestreaming across multiple online platforms. It was a Kibel family affair: Behind the scenes, wielding the camera and fielding online comments, were Kibel’s wife, Sandy Alexander, and their daughter, Josie. Father and son played a selection of jazz standards, some klezmer tunes and a few original Kibel compositions and some jazz arrangements by son Will. Close to 2,000 people from around the country tuned in on Facebook and Kibel’s YouTube channel.
His next online gig is scheduled for the night before Passover, April 7 at 7 p.m. ET.
At the onset of the crisis, Kibel drafted a petition for what he calls a Post-COVID Arts Stimulus Plan. It can be found on MoveOn.org and is nearing 1,000 signatures.
Aside from block grants to major institutions, which are part of the recent COVID-19 Federal relief package, Kibel suggests grants for state and local municipalities to support free public concerts, theater and dance performances, public art shows and more. He also calls for either grants or tax breaks to private businesses like bars, restaurants and breweries that feature live music or exhibit local artists.
“There’s been a lot of focus on providing relief for people in the [arts] industry right now … and I don’t dispute the need for that,” Kibel said. “I am much more worried, though, about what happens in the months and even years after this crisis fades, because things are not just going to go back to normal when this is over. Performing arts organizations, theater companies, arts centers, restaurants, bars —they have all been decimated by this. And it’s not like performing arts groups and theaters and performers were thriving before this happened.”
He added, “I’m nervous that, once everything gets sort of back to normal, people will forget that many sectors of the economy, like the performing arts, won’t be able to bounce back as quickly as other sectors.”
See also: You Should Know… Seth Kibel