Webmaster extraordinary

By Andrew Liddle

Article reproduced from Just Jazz Magazine September 2011
By kind permission of Andrew Liddle, and Just Jazz Magazine


Everybody who is anybody knows about Fred's website. Indeed, his name itself has become a byword. People will say, "I'll look it up on Fred," or "Fred says..." More people in the jazz world know of him than about him.

So who exactly is this oracle? I travelled to his home in Preston to find out. He is a modest chap and the details had to be dragged out of him, of how it all came about and how he now finds himself working flat out all for love of Jazz and putting people in touch with it.

Fred Burnett's www.jazznorthwest.co.uk website was pre-ordained by some higher force - or so it seems, listening to the eponymous webmaster, a remarkably youthful-looking retired telecom­munications' Officer, telling his story.

You see, without knowing it, Fred went through various experiences that made his website - which now has over three thousand hits a month - almost bound to happen. It all began back in 1960 when the young fresh-faced 18-year-old from Accrington was working for the GPO as a telephone fitter. One day, in Bury, he met a chap called Sam Lord who introduced him to the world of Colyer, Barber, Bilk, Ball, and 'all the usual suspects; as he now puts it. So that was stage one: establishment of interest in the great music. Before this seminal moment, he was into skiffle and rock 'n' roll, but jazz as such had eluded him.

So far, so good.

The second stage arrived in the next few years when he found time to develop his interest in being what in those days was known as a Radio Ham, an active member of the Bury and Rossendale Radio Club, and ultimately its chairman. This was a hobby dating from the time when, as a 13-year-old, he had built his first radio set with his mate, Keith Drinkwater. By the time he was 19 he had passed the Morse Test and got his own call sign (G3RSM). Without this experience, then, of communicating electronically with other like-minded people, it is doubtful that the website would ever have come about.

Fred toiled away at his job, gaining promotions. He was happiest when he was busiest, scurrying around setting up channels of communication for the television networks for which BT then had a monopoly. He was present at Sir Winston Churchill's funeral. He met Richard Dimbleby at Barrow when the Queen was there to launch The British Admiral, a gigantic oil tanker. He covered The Beatles at the Liverpool Empire and got to know to the racetracks of the north like the back of his hand (as a planner, not a punter!).

In 1973, Fred was invited to move on to Data Communications Technical Support a the start of the digital revolution, where he became a trouble-shooter for the whole North West Region, establishing his interest in, and proprietorial concern for, that large and diverse area, and gaining priceless experience of working under extreme pressure, which (as we shall see) he certainly needs these days.

Years went by, and became decades before providence stepped in again. Let's fast-forward to 1989 and we encounter Fred, having a day out in the Lake District and finding himself in Kendal. By now Fred had (to his shame) lost contact with jazz. The pressure of work, travelling around the country, bringing up his family are his excuses for turning to such as Johnny Cash, the Carpenters and, even light classical music. We'll forgive him!

It's raining, so he wanders into a record shop and there before him is a pile of Lake records. For old time's sake he buys a stack of Ken Colyer's. His love of jazz is rekindled and pretty soon he is roaming the airwaves, picking up a test transmission for Jazz FM where he hears that the ex 'Spinner, Tony Davis, is to present a series of programmes on Traditional jazz called 'Tony's Tradtime; which he eagerly awaits. It's during these programmes that Fred learns that live Traditional jazz is still being played around the county, and he immediately pays a visit to Lancaster to hear the New Riverside Jazz Band, quickly followed by a trip to Blackpool to hear the Festival Jazzmen. It didn't do any harm either that Terry Lightfoot and his Jazz Band were playing at Blakey's Jazz Club, in Blackburn. In various subtle ways, then, providence had got him back on track.

Importantly, Fred had got into computers just at the right time, from the very beginning, getting a thorough grounding in them, teaching himself and ever extending and updating his own computers, learning to programme and use Machine Code.

He took an early retirement in 1992 - another necessary milestone passed. He was now able to dedicate himself, full­time, to his obvious calling, even if at this stage he did not know what this was. In 1996 he now channelled his computing interest and indefatigable energy (which he still retains) into studying a course on the Internet at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston. This was the relatively early days of the Internet, and although having read much about it, having 'hands on' experience was the only way forward for Fred. As if he didn't know enough already! By now he was buying CDs from all over the world, making up for lost time, googling jazz-sites, finding ever more links. Then one blessed day, the thought occurred to him that he should launch his own site based on local jazz. He had, as he says, nothing better to do and possessed 'the time, leisure, expertise and interest: Providence had put it all in place.

So, in 1996, Traditional jazz in Lancashire was launched from his semi-detached house in Preston. Mostly it consisted of profiles of the region's bands which Fred himself researched and compiled, visiting each club or pub in turn. It quickly dawned on him that here was an opportunity to actually make a positive contribution to jazz, helping to promote it by publishing details of gigs and venues. Installing the guest book was probably what got the whole thing going. He was amazed at how many people were sending in messages and he began to realise the enormous potential of what he had created.

He describes this early period as being the most enjoyable of his life. "Everything was innovative, brand new, wonderful," he says, catching his breath. "I was in a world of my own ... a king in my own castle!" And so it grew and grew...

Just to give you some idea of the scale of things, let's look at some statistics for a moment. Fred's website contains over 400 different web pages of information. There are 664 photographs to inform the eye, and 72 music tracks to delight the ear. There are 54 of the region's bands featured, making 'public their history, personnel, and venues. The hugely popular 'What's on in the North West' gives specific listings so you can almost always find a jazz gig on any given night. Tremendous! And there's a links' page to 250 other sites, just in case you want to look farther afield.

Okay, you've got that. Well consider this and you'll get some idea of how priceless the website is. The largest web page would require 85 sheets of paper to print it out! The current two web pages of news and archived news would require 55 sheets of paper to print out. An average of 66 Traditional jazz news items per month are added to the site, keeping readers abreast of news, and allowing people to reminisce and ask whatever happened to so and so. One of the most poignant features is dedicated to musicians no longer with us.

So just who uses the site? Well, obviously people from all over the world who choose to go on it, thousands each month, in fact. And Fred has mailing lists of 332 recipients of the News email service; of 203 jazz musicians; and of 25 jazz promoters. Quite obviously this is pretty high on maintenance. In a recent month he received 772 legitimate emails, the vast majority of which were about jazz and the website. And, quite staggeringly, Fred answers them all - and, in my experience, very often within a few minutes of them being sent. The hardest job, by far, he confides, is having to decipher many of them and rewrite items before publication. Many arrive mis-spelt, with no punctuation or capitals, or entirely in upper case. And yet, Fred is willing to put all to rights in order to have the pleasure of putting people in contact with old friends and long-lost musicians.

Can someone with some clout nominate this man for, at the very least, an MBE for services to Jazz. A similar award should also go to Barbara, his long-suffering wife - who, in truth, is blissfully happily married to the webmaster!

Andrew Liddle
September 2011

If you are wondering what the faint background picture is on this page,
it's a circuit diagram of the first computer that I built
back in 1978.
It appeared in Vol 1, Issue 1 of Personal Computer World - Fred

If you're a glutton for punishment and want to know what I sound like, check out my surprise appearance on Radio 4

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