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Sunday, September 17, 2023

Jost Gebers (1940 - 2023)

Photo by Gérard Rouy
By Martin Schray

Usually, we publish obituaries about musicians here, but this time we say goodbye to a man without whom European free jazz would not have existed: Jost Gebers. He was the driving force behind Free Music Production (FMP). Even though FMP was founded in 1969 by Gebers, Peter Brötzmann, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Kowald, it was continuously tied to no other person as it was to him. Yet, he would probably be embarrassed by these lines now, because the cult of genius was completely far from him. And if Gebers had known in 1968/69, when the foundation of FMP was in the offing, what was in store, if he had known that there would probably never have been a successor to carry on the label in the spirit of the founding years, who knows whether he would have taken on this task.

Behind the founding of FMP, above all, was the desire to improve the musicians’ working conditions if they owned the means of production - also for the production and distribution of recordings - themselves, “i.e. to be able to determine the conditions oneself, instead of having to go into the studio for a few hours and deliver one’s stuff in the shortest possible time“, as Gebers put it. Because of too much friction, the collective was dissolved in 1976 and Gebers was appointed sole managing director. However, further on there were enough serious crises, because it’s questionable whether this music, which has always been fundamentally very uncommercial, would have supported itself on its own (today more than ever, but even then). FMP was also on the brink of going bankrupt in the 70s and 80s. Without the encouragement from outside, Gebers would not have been able to continue. Above all, Peter Brötzmann, who was more committed to the label than any other musician, was able to convince Gebers again and again to continue the label after all. Cultural politicians sympathetic to the label were also helpful.

After the German reunification, however, FMP - like so many things in Berlin - had to reorient itself. Because of the cheap housing in the city at that time (especially in the eastern part), the scene became even more lively, multi-layered and international than it already had been. But FMP was thus also no longer the sole top dog, and the struggle for funding became more difficult as many federal subsidies for the former West Berlin fell away. Until the mid-1990s, FMP represented the main streams of improvised music, as well as the most important side streams - more comprehensively than any other label. However, contact with musicians who were now moving to the city and looking for performance and publishing opportunities remained sporadic. It’s bitter irony that at the moment when Berlin, at least musically speaking, finally overcame its rather provincial status, FMP, this decidedly cosmopolitan enterprise, started to fade into the background. Thus, from 1996/97 on, it was already foreseeable that the history of FMP was drawing to a close. Gebers had already signaled that he would retire. At that time it was clear that Berlin politics would provide less and less funding for something as exotic and unruly as free jazz. FMP itself had not become a commercially successful business model (which would have been impossible, since the label owes its existence to a unique biographical/temporal constellation), but the idea that stood at the beginning - to produce free music undiminished, continuously and against the spirit of the times - had broadened. This will forever remain Jost Gebers’s achievement.

But unfortunately, the story about him and FMP did not come to a harmonious end (at least the Berlin part). Gebers planned his exit smoothly, everything was to be well prepared: With the dissolution of his company, the institutional funding ceased. In return, he received a guarantee that he would receive full funding until his exit, and planning security was assured for a few more years. The FMP publishing company, which has represented many of the musicians' works since 1985 and is not identical with the label, remained in existence and took over the label and was able to produce CDs beyond 1999. At the same time, FMP-Publishing granted Helma Schleif in a license agreement “the unrestricted and exclusive right to have the recordings of the label FMP/Free Music Production/An Edition of Improvised Music produced and distributed worldwide“. The entire stock of goods went to her, but the Total Music Meeting, the basis of many productions, was effectively ended, which was to play an unfortunate role in the future of Schleif’s continuation. Helma Schleif associated the distribution takeover with more far-reaching plans and believed that she would also inherit the entire label - including its festival - through this takeover. This was further supported by the fact that Gebers, after discussions with younger musicians such as Gregor Hotz and Olaf Rupp, was persuaded to organize a TMM compact festival that would be self-financed without subsidies. The festival was a great success, especially artistically. But it made his decision to dissolve his company and thus also end the financial support of TMM seem short-sighted, stubborn and self-important (the two lines of argument in complete opposition, it’s difficult to position yourself when you’re on the outside). Gebers and Schleif fell out completely, and the whole thing ended up in court, where Gebers was fully vindicated.

In 2003, Gebers, who had retired from his work as a social worker in the meantime, moved to the Westphalian small town of Borken, where the publishing house had already been based for many years. At the end of 2004, Gebers ceased production activities altogether. It was not until 2007, after the legal dispute, that he was able and willing to resume them. Many FMP productions are now available via Bandcamp and destination:out, at least digitally.

A statement by Olaf Rupp outlines the importance of Gebers’s influence. When we asked him for an interview about the Echtzeit network whether there were people that he would like to highlight because they have contributed a lot to today’s improvising scene, he answered: “FMP! Most definitely!“ He pointed out that Jost Gebers had done an incredible amount for improvised music, even if some people (including him) complained about him back in the 90s because they believed he was not very open to new musicians. Now Rupp sees that differently. He only realized much later, that all of the musicians, even those who weren’t allowed to play at the Total Music Meetings, benefited indirectly from the fact that FMP existed, especially because of its structures.

There are many rumors about Gebers’s vault, about many tapes that actually deserved to be published. Who knows what the future will bring. But today we simply mourn the loss of a great man in free jazz. It’s been a sad year for free jazz fans so far, seeing three German legends - Brötzmann, Petrowsky and Gebers - pass away.

Note: Large parts of this text are based on Felix Klopotek’s history of FMP “Tschüss! 40 Jahre FMP“. For those who read German, you can find the long version here.


Mike Heffley said...

Sad news. I was lucky to get to know him a little in 1997, and write about his work. Also Dagmar. My condolences to her and all mourning his loss.

Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

The last months are quite full of loss.
Got to know him personally in 2017 when we had contact over FMP reissues and licensing.
He was a sober yet friendly person with a hidden humour - so far my impressions from our many shorter and few longer conversations and musings about the state of Free music and the arts in general.
Now he is gone as well.

Shaun said...

Sad news, and an interesting read. However, I feel mention should be made of the avowedly 'leftist' nature of the original enterprise - hinted at here by the reference to the 'means of production'.
Music is better than politics, but sometimes it shouldn't be avoided.

Markus Mueller said...

Thank you Martin! Just one anal comment: FMP properly was founded in 1972 by Gebers, Brötzmann, von Schlippenbach, Kowald, AND Detlef Schönenberg (fantastic drummer, his workings with Günther Christmann are absolutely outstanding music). 1969 saw the first FMP record release, yes, but it took Gebers and Brötzmann three more years to align everybody and make them sign the papers.


FMP and Incus, in a few words, came when almost nothing existed, in terms of this music called free improvisation but also about everything that makes an independent label-artistic hub. Paved ways, opened paths, showed that it can be done.
Gratitude to Mr. Gebers//