October 2002

Keter Betts: Swinging Through Life and Nine

“Bass fiddle, golf clubs and American Express—never leave home without them,” says professional bassist, amateur golfer and frequent quipper Keter Betts.

In his years as Ella Fitzgerald’s primary bassist, from 1971 until her retirement in 1993, Betts left home often, playing around the world with “Miss Fitz,” as the boys in the band lovingly called her. (Betts still wears a small gold medallion that Fitzgerald gave to everyone in the band on Father’s Day 1977, because she felt bad that they were in England with her rather than with their families. The medal is inscribed, “Love, Miss Fitz, 1977.”)

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Jim Saah

Keter Betts

Betts has also played some of the world’s remarkable golf courses, ball-striking from the Caribbean to Europe, but today the 74-year-old is at Sligo Creek Golf Course, in Silver Spring, Md. It’s a very short nine-hole public course that’s a step or 2,000 down from the places Betts usually plays. But it’s close to his Silver Spring home of 35 years and the JazzTimes offices, and Betts has time only for a quick nine with Lee Mergner and me. He needs to get his tuxedo pressed and head out to Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts where he’ll meet up with his buddy Bill Cosby. Betts is a dedicated educator and community-minded person, and he frequently attends special events like this evening’s.

Sitting on a bench outside the clubhouse, the white-haired, dark-skinned Betts is smoking a cigarette, decked out in his tan-striped Greg Norman “Shark”-wear shirt, tan pants and saddle-shoe spikes. His golf bag, filled with Vector irons and King Cobra woods, rests next to him. This man is serious about hitting the little white ball.

“How you doing, Keter?” Mergner asks.

Betts stretches out his arms toward the course, shrugs his shoulders and smiles as if to say, “What could be wrong?”

We rent a cart for Betts and me and head to the first tee. Mergner opens with a straight but short drive. Betts then places his ball between the white tee markers and strikes it. His swing is stiff, and his back foot flings forward. It’s not the best form, but he hits the ball dead ahead and with decent distance. Then I tee it up, swing with my perfect form and slice the ball far into the rough.

Betts finishes the hole with a five, one over par. Mergner knocks back a six. I barely finish at all.

We move on to the second hole, and Betts surveys Sligo’s fairways, which mostly run back and forth, parallel to one another. Seeing that the course isn’t that long, Betts looks at the white tees, then at the professional blue tees. “On this course you can play the blues,” the bassist says without irony.

“In the beginning I was born,” teases unabashed corny joker William Thomas “Keter” Betts, birthed July 22, 1928, in Port Chester, N.Y. He gained his lifelong nickname from a family friend that called him the diminutive of “little mosquito,” and his playful demeanor and easy laugh fit his sweetly mischievous moniker.

Betts started down his musical path in 5th grade, as a drummer, falling in love with their thunderous sounds while he was out on an errand. “My mother sent me to the store. My town was 80 percent Italian, and we had a little store around the corner, Mr. Angelo’s. She sent me to get a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk,” Betts says.

While out, he came across an Italian parade, booming with drums, which fascinated him. “I just said, ‘Whoa!’ So I walked all over town; I was gone for hours following that parade. And when I got home my mother was gonna kill me. She said, ‘I had people call, say you’re walking by in the parade. Why didn’t you let me know?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t leave that parade. Mom, I want to play drums,’” Betts says pleadingly in a schoolboy’s voice. “The next month I got a little snare drum.”

Eventually, drums weren’t the only instrument Betts took an interest in. “In high school I started playing tuba, timpani, glockenspiel—anything I could get my hands on,” Betts says, including bass. Drums were his primary instrument, however, and he took lessons in New York City, heading there after school let out.

While in the city, Betts would catch a number of shows, watching and sometimes meeting the musicians he loved before training back home. In 1946 a fortuitous encounter took place after one of those concerts.

“I wanted to go see Cab Calloway, because he had a drummer named Cozy Cole. I went to see the show, but a new drummer had just joined the band. And he took a drum solo and killed me, but I didn’t catch his name,” Betts says. “So, I asked the usher how do you get backstage. By the time I got back there one of the musicians was coming out and I said, ‘Could you find the drummer for me? I’d like to talk to him.’”

It was a meeting that wouldn’t take place, the unknown drummer having already gone out to dinner, but it was a nonmeeting that changed Betts’ life.

The mystery musician who went to look for the unknown drummer offered to take the 18-year-old Betts out for dinner, and he took a shine to the kid. He recommended a bass teacher to Betts should he decide to get serious about the instrument. Betts took him up on the offer not only because he enjoyed the bass but also because he hated breaking down and carrying his drum kit to and from his family’s fourth-floor apartment in a building with no elevator. By 1947 he was playing bass professionally.

The benevolent bassist was Milt Hinton, who became Betts’ close friend, and the missing drummer was Panama Francis.

Years later, Betts recalls, “We were on a cruise one time, and I said, ‘Panama, it’s because I came to meet you, and I didn’t meet you, and I met him that I switched to bass.’ And he said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t meet me.’”

Betts giggles like a kid at the memory.

He has many memories now, priding himself on his instant recall of dates. Most of his remembrances are positive, though some recent ones are bittersweet. Betts has had to endure losses of friends in the jazz world and family over the last two years. In August 2000 his beloved wife, Mildred “Pinky” Betts, died from cancer, a disease that she carried with her for 13 years and through six major operations. He has also lost the man who wasn’t there, Panama Francis (2001), and the man who was, Milt Hinton (2000), as well as Tommy Flanagan (2001), the pianist he toured the world with as part of Fitzgerald’s band. (Francis and Flanagan’s wakes were on the same night in New York City, and Betts boarded a train and headed there alone to attend both.) This past July his frequent golf buddy, Ray Brown, whose muscular sense of swing is one that Betts’ rock-solid bass style most closely resembles, also died.

He was stung by the deaths, but Betts takes a philosophical approach to cope with the losses. “My wife’s death really made me learn that you can’t dwell on the loss, because everyone is going to be lost,” he says quietly. “So you look at the gain of what that person gave to life. What you got from everybody—and what you gave them. That’s the most important thing in my life today.”

Betts praises many people who helped shape him and his career, especially his wife, Fitzgerald and Brown. Though, he says, “I have to acknowledge two people who helped me take big steps in my life”—he lets out a “shhhhh” exhalation that’s part sadness, part thoughtful pause. “I love the people who really backed me all the way. My mother for one, and then Dinah Washington, from whom I learned what a song was—I just cared about the changes because I was the bass player—but I started hearing whole songs with her. I did five and a half years with her.”

Before Betts hooked up with Washington, he had two important jobs. He played with saxophonist Carmen Leggio, often heading down to D.C. clubs for extended stays between 1947 and 1948. It was in D.C. that R&B saxophonist Earl Bostic first heard Betts, playing sideman to saxophonist Rick Henderson, and he hired the bassist in 1949. It was Betts’ first huge gig, and it allowed him to tour the United States several times, opening his eyes to the country.

In September 1951 Betts left Bostic for the employ of Dinah Washington. He and fellow Bostic bandmember drummer Jimmy Cobb played a one-nighter with the singer in New Jersey in the spring of 1951, and afterward she told the rhythm section, “If you guys ever leave Bostic, you got a job.” “The piano player was Wynton Kelly,” Betts says, and “we just fit together, just like that. Then Wynton got drafted by the Army in ’52, which I could never understand because he was totally deaf in one ear. But they took him,” he chuckles.

The pianists came and went, including his future Floating Jazz Festival Trio member Junior Mance and the return of Kelly in ’54, but Betts remained a rock for Washington through 1956. He finally left the band and the road to return to D.C. to be a father; his eldest son, Bill, was born in 1955.

“I met my wife [in D.C.] and we got married in ’53, and Dinah gave us the wedding. We were married at Adam Clayton Powell’s church; she paid for the wedding,” Betts says, the gratitude in his voice for Washington’s generosity still obvious nearly 50 years later.

Washington’s band was closing Birdland the night the Betts were married, and the bassist had to play his own reception, along with two other bands. “A few years ago I went over to the Blue Note festival in Japan, and Tito Puente was over there,” Betts says. “We got stranded over there because we had the typhoons, and they called the whole thing off and we couldn’t leave for three days. But [Tito’s] telling the guys, ‘I played at his wedding reception! At Birdland, 1953! October!’”

Betts is laughing again.

While Betts loved working for the seven-times-married Washington, he admits she could be a tough character to those who crossed her. “She knew how to deal with people, like the big-time hustlers and so forth. They’d come up and say, ‘Queen! Let me buy you a drink.’ And she’d say, ‘Mmm hmmm, I’m drinkin’ champagne and so is my trio.’

“There was this club we played one night in Indianapolis. And the piano was terrible, I mean, terrible,” Betts says, drawing out the final word for an eternity in his high, scratchy voice. “When it was over, the club owner comes up to us and says, ‘Mrs. Washington, I want to tell you how much I enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll consider coming back here to this club.’ And she says, ‘About that damn piano…’ He said, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ She said, ‘You need to tune it, then I would paint it, then I would burn that sucker to the ground.’ He said, ‘For cryin’ out loud, Count Basie played on that piano.’ And she said, ‘And that’s why he played so few notes.’”

Betts is cracking up.

“Back in that era, because the whole music business was run by men, and they were hard,” Betts says, “this is what made a lot of those women singers hard, because the only way the man would hear you was you had to talk just as loud and just and as hard as he did. They could get down, all of them.”

Betts knows his singers, having extensively backed two of the most legendary in the history of jazz as well as taking numerous one-nighters and mini tours with many vocalists during the course of his sideman career. All that work with the crooners led to Betts’ self-penned metaphor for his playing: “I got the attitude that you’re a tailor and you have to fit that singer. The singer comes on stage—she’s buck naked, or he’s buck naked—and it’s our job as the rhythm section to dress that singer for the audience. If the music is perfect they can float on that cloud.”

From 1957 to 1964 Betts played with guitarist Charlie Byrd while in D.C. (see sidebar below), and he played various sideman gigs, including touring Europe and Saudi Arabia with Woody Herman in 1959. But when he joined Fitzgerald’s band–first from October 1964 to November 1965, again in 1968 for a short time and finally in 1971 for good–he solidified his place in history as the consummate vocalist’s sideman, his bluesy, glissando-laden style lending perfect driving accompaniment for singers to float on.

Betts initially acquired the Fitzgerald job based on the recommendation of his comrade Ray Brown, the singer’s ex-husband and longtime music director. By the time Betts joined Fitzgerald full time, he had five kids—Bill, John, Derek and twins Jaquelyn and Jennifer. He didn’t want to be on the road and away from family, but if you want to be a full-time jazz musician, hitting the road is what you have to do. Betts averaged 36 weeks a year on tour with Fitzgerald, doing more than 50 tours of Europe with her during those 24 years. And that road begat more humorous memories.

“One night, 1975, we were on this tour of Europe with [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis], Roy Eldridge, Joe Pass, Tommy Flanagan, Bobby Durham and myself [with Ella]. We did a 13-week tour,” Betts says. “One of those nights we were somewhere in Scandinavia. Ella had a black-sequined dress on, and we were getting into the finale. Well, this black-sequined dress she had on, a string had come loose. Roy says, ‘Lemme get this string here; turn around.’ And this thing starts unraveling, and beads are falling around everywhere. And Lockjaw comes over to help and the string gets caught up in his saxophone and it got caught in one of Roy’s valves—it was classic! A classic! And she’s turning around like a marionette! Oh, God, that was funny.”

Funny is Keter Betts trash talking on the golf course. Since my playing and concentration quickly deteriorated due to my working on this story (not sure what my excuse will be next time I play), Mergner alone has to go against Betts, which means he gets fired at by both of the bassist’s barrels when he leaves a putt or two or three short:

“Didn’t you eat breakfast this morning?”

“You might be standing too close to the microwave.”

“You thought that was an American flag and you waved at it. That’s not an American flag, that’s a golf flag!”

Betts is working the one-liners like Henny Youngman.

Meanwhile, as I chase Betts around the course, I find myself picking up his clubs, removing the flag for his putts and talking strategy about how to drive a doglegged fairway, all of which leads the bassist to declare, “If you keep doing that I’m going to want to take you on the road with me.”

Add caddy to my responsibilities today.

As we hole-out the difficult ninth, I ask everyone for their scores. No one seems to remember exactly what they shot on this par-breaking last hole, though I have a suspicion that Betts knows but he doesn’t want to tell me.

I ask him again.

He looks at me sideways, a twinkle in his eye, flashes a sly smile and answers, “As Duke Ellington said, ‘What’s out of sight is beyond vision.’”

Gearbox:

Keter Betts uses Super-Sensitive Supreme double-bass strings in orchestral tuning. He has a Juzek wood bass and two Kay prewar wood basses. Betts also works with a Quintus carbon fiber double bass in 3/4 size, which is lighter and easier to transport than wood basses.

I, Sideman:

Bossa Nova Blues?

Despite a 55-year professional career, Keter Betts didn’t record an album as a leader until 1998, self-releasing Bass, Buddies & Blues, followed by 1999’s Bass, Buddies, Blues & Beauty Too and 2001’s Live at the East Coast Jazz Festival 2000. (The CDs can be ordered through www.jazzbymail.com.) His latest CD, Pinky’s Waltz: Keter Betts Live at Montpelier (JazzMont), with pianist Bill Charlap and drummer Dennis Mackrel, is only available by calling 301-953-1993.

Betts was supposed to do an album as a leader in 1957, however. “A guy who owned a big book store here on Connecticut Avenue offered me to do one; he was going to back me on it. Just when I was getting ready to do it, Charlie Byrd said, ‘Well, give me that date, and I’ll get you another one.’ So I gave him that date, and that’s when we did [Byrd’s] Blues for Night People. That was the first [date]; I never got another one.”

Another record that Betts contributed to is 1962’s Jazz Samba, the smash album by Stan Getz with Charlie Byrd that ignited the bossa nova jazz craze in the States. Legend has it that Byrd, on a tour of South America for the U.S. State Department in 1961, heard bossa nova, brought some tapes back and eventually played them for Getz, who was a Verve recording artist. The saxophonist then convinced producer Creed Taylor to let Getz, Byrd and crew record the music for Verve.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Betts says. “When we went down for the State tour we heard [bossa nova] in Brazil at a judge’s house. And Buddy Deppenschmidt, the drummer, and I went out the next day and bought two albums apiece of that. When we got back we started playing it, Gilberto and Jobim, and we started talking to Charlie—‘Charlie, why don’t we play these?’ After about six or seven months of talking to him we started playing a little bit of it. Then Stan came in one night and heard it, he sat in, and so forth, and he said, ‘We should record this.’ Charlie’s company, which was Riverside, didn’t want to record it, and they said, ‘No, we don’t think it will be nothing.’

It’s a revelation to hear that it was Betts and Deppenschmidt who brought bossa nova music back to the States, and to jazz—not Byrd. I press Betts, against his will, for more details.

“Leave it,” he states, not bitterly. “There are people who know, but just leave it alone. Just leave it. It’s not a sore point because life goes on. What’s past is past. I have no regrets.”

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