08/08/05

Bassist Keter Betts Dies at Age 77

Bassist Keter Betts, who played on over 200 recordings and spent much of his later years promoting jazz education and teaching, died Saturday of an undetermined cause at his home in Silver Spring, Md. He was 77.

Betts was considered one of the era’s great bassists – “on the top plateau of all the bass players,” according to trumpeter Clark Terry. He played in bands with Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanigan, Woody Herman, Nat Adderley, Joe Pass, Clifford Brown and Vince Guaraldi and recorded with artists including Charlie Byrd, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald.

Born William Thomas Betts on July 22, 1928 in Port Chester, N.Y., Betts was raised by his single mother, who agreed to sign Betts up for drum lessons after he spent four hours listening to the drummer in a parade while he was supposed to be running a quick errand. Despite her fury over his disappearance, he began taking drum lessons until he switched to bass during his senior year in high school, in 1946. While multiple factors were influences in his switch, including a conversation with bassist Milt Hinton, the deciding factor was Betts’ exhaustion from carrying his drum set up four flights of stairs to his family’s apartment.

His nickname, “Keter,” came when he was still a baby as a family friend said he was as cute as a mosquito. Mosquito soon became Skeeter and finally just Keter.

Betts’ career more or less began in Washington, D.C., starting with saxophonist Carmen Leggio’s invitation to play at a club in the city in 1947. He later made his home in Washington in the mid-1950s.

While in Washington, Betts teamed with Charlie Byrd and the duo played regularly in the District and made several State Department-sponsored trips abroad. It was on one of these trips, to Brazil, that Betts became captivated by samba records. Betts had said that he spent months trying to convince Byrd to play the music around Washington, and finally, in 1962, Jazz Samba was recorded at Washington’s All Souls Unitarian Church. The million-selling album granted Byrd and Stan Getz credit for starting the bossa nova craze in the United States, even though Betts was prominently featured on the album. Only within recent years was Betts’ role in igniting bossa nova realized and promulgated.

It was in 1965, when Betts was a member of the Tommy Flanigan Trio, that Betts began his professional relationship with Ella Fitzgerald. In 1971, he joined her band full-time and played with her religiously until her last performance in 1993.

In spite of his busy recording schedule, Betts didn’t release an album under his own leadership until 1998 with Bass, Buddies & Blues. In the following years, he released two additional albums as leader, 1999’s Bass, Buddies, Blues & Beauty Too and 2001’s Live at the East Coast Jazz Festival 2000.

Betts is survived by five children, William Betts Jr. of Washington, Jon Betts of Olney, Md., Derek Betts of Los Angeles and Jacquelyn Betts and Jennifer Betts, both of Silver Spring, Md.; and four grandchildren.

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