FMP in Retrospect

Bernd Mehlitz (2010)

Make a note of that guy!

Memories of working in close association with Jost Gebers

“…. The saxophone player on the far right, make a note of him, a good man. And from the compositions, Arndt’s is ok, nicely raises the alarm at the beginning, a bit thin in the middle, but at the end they really get going.” Jost Gebers’ comment, standing next to me for an instant at the Quartier Latin, a Roth-Händle cigarette in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, and then straight back to his place at the bar. A moment I haven’t forgotten to the present day, after more than a quarter of a century.

We, the Senate for Cultural Affairs, had awarded composition scholarships to Jazz musicians living and working in Berlin and were now presenting the results in a concert at the Quartier. The place was packed, the atmosphere in the audience was good and we, the Senate’s pen pushers, were pleased about the successful funding venture. And then Gebers, cutting the whole thing down to size which, on the other hand, was a painful description of the reality. I have never known him to be any different, mercilessly uncompromising but at the same time equally committed to his cause.

Jost Gebers was one of my first discussion partners when I began my activities at the Senate for Cultural Affairs in autumn 1979, as advisor for the promotion of autonomous groups. They had also considered Gebers for this post, but had then decided in my favour. And now he was sitting in front of me, trying to find out what makes this guy tick and will he be useful for that which concerns FMP. The type who turned up at Jazz concerts but when it came to Free Jazz, preferred to step outside and smoke a cigarette. But Gebers impressed me right from our first conversation, especially how he, repeatedly, in an almost off-hand manner, knew how to differentiate between the vast and diverse offerings in Berlin and the artistic particularities and distinctive forms of expression. Out of this first contact, there was to develop 25 years of renewed meetings and a large number of realized projects.

Free improvised Jazz, along with the statement: to be Berlin’s form of expression of international Jazz, thereby defining FMP as unique, by all means helped to pave the way, in the political arena, for financial support. But it was always also a constantly recurring fight, trying to sustain a cultural activity for a minority. Take the Total Music Meeting, for example, an addition to the main Berlin JazzFest until 1988, then, however, seen as an inconvenience by the organisers because of the costs incurred, had to be safeguarded and it required a lot of administrative skills to guarantee the funding.

By that time, Jost Gebers had quite obviously got used to a kind of division of labour between himself - FMP - and the “civil servants”: he designated the financial or organisational problems the tasks to be solved by the administration and he himself took over the job of coming up with new artistic material. Gebers, the Charlottenburg social worker, on the other hand, as an employee of the civil service himself, knew very well about the organisational and financial possibilities available to us and the limitations.

Gebers, who also persistently worked on projects the implementation of which was difficult to communicate: e.g. the documentation of a project during the Capital of Culture year 1988, Cecil Taylor in Berlin. In the end they produced a box of 11 CD’s with a book, because Gebers had documented everything Taylor had wormed out of the piano. The lesson I learned was that free improvised Jazz, the spontaneous inspiration of the moment, only gains knowledge of its true value if there is somebody there to do the documentation with meticulous precision.

The fact that an exchange of ideas can have consequences, in this context, very well reminds me of a comment by Gebers how great it would be to have the “primordial germ cell” of Free Jazz, Cecil Taylor, in Berlin over a longer period of time. I took part in the meetings of the jury for the selection of DAAD scholarship recipients in Berlin as an advisory member and there was room for one more invitation: “The Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor would accept an invitation”, I pronounced, and in 1990 he was invited.

If there is something that has remained from my encounters with Jost Gebers, it is the memory of the many unique public music events in Berlin, be it the concerts in the Town hall in Charlottenburg, the studio concerts in Wedding or the program sequence of the exceptional Total Music Meeting in Podewil 1991 - which seemed completely disorganized but finally all the pieces coming together - .

And he has also got across to me how closely you have to observe, listen in order to distinguish between the so-called claimed intentions and what was actually being demonstrated.

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton