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Legendary Bassist, Keter Betts

Keter Betts Keter Betts Ronnie James, 1999
Keter Betts is not only a great bass player; he is a pretty fine philosopher. Of course, when you have six decades of influential jazz performances under your belt, you learn a thing or two along the way. "There are six billion people in the world and ironically there are no two fingerprints alike," said Keter. "You are one in 6 billion," he continued. "Take what you are, and who you are, and make a difference in the world."

Keter has lived by that philosophy and is a firm believer that your individual uniqueness has a lot to say about being a jazz musician. "In the music field you hear a lot of musicians trying to sound like Parker or some other famous musician," he said. "Why did Parker sound like he did? Because he was one in 6 billion," Keter continued. "Of course you have your idols, but if you’re trying to play just like them, so-in-so gets the credit."

Keter’s own personal credits are impressive, having played with some of the most notable jazz musicians of his time, including a 24-year stretch with Ella Fitzgerald. Now in his mid-seventies, Keter’s schedule is still a busy one, performing, lecturing, conducting workshops, and benefiting others with the value of his experience.

Popular jazz vocalist, Allan Harris, says, "Keter Betts, what a guy! After spending a whole week with Keter in Hilton Head where we ate together, hung out together and played at night together, I have to say that it was truly a learning experience not only about music, but also about life itself. He is so full of wisdom and insight. For example, he told me how to deal with someone who asks you how his or her performance was. If it wasn't great, one of the things you can say is ‘Yeah, you were really up there.’ That is what Dinah Washington used to say. Keter is one of the most generous spirits in the jazz world. When I was at the East Coast Jazz Festival, I had no band. I was going on in a few minutes. The great Keter Betts went out and got his bass and brought it back to accompany me me, a new, unknown singer! He doesn't let ego get in the way of playing. He loves to play and when he's on stage with me, its always one of the most relaxing performances I can ever give."

Keter’s life-long dedication to jazz began when he was in 5th grade. "We lived 27 miles north of New York City by the Connecticut line in the town of Port Chester" said Keter. "The town was 80% Italian. One day my mother sent me to the store to get some bread and something happened that took me four hours to come home," he recalled. "There was this parade coming down the street and I ended up following it all over town. It was something about the music," he said. "Somebody called my mother and told her I was following a parade. My mother almost killed me when I got home. I got a whippin’," laughed Keter. "After that, I told my mother I wanted to play drums. So the next month, I got a little snare drum and that was the start of it."

"I got a little set and played dances and weddings, wherever I could play. I took the train to New York City to take drum lessons, but in 1946, I switched to bass," said Keter. "We lived on the 4th floor and had no elevator. I got tired of hauling all those Krupa drums up and down those stairs. That was a lot of work. The bass only weighs 40 pounds, so I switched," Keter said.

Keter went to Washington D.C. in 1947, a year after graduating high school, and in no time at all, hooked up with Carmen Leggio. "Carmen was from White Plains, New York and he had been down here when he was stationed in the service. A lady who owned a club called "7th and T" liked Carmen so she asked if he could come back down with us. We were all underage except the sax and piano player, so we had to get permission from our folks to leave home and play," he said. "Our drummer was ‘June Bug’ Lindsey. Carmen got us a piano player and we played an initial eight weeks there and then another thirteen weeks at 7th & T," said Keter.

"The next year, Carmen and I did eight weeks at the same club with a different piano player, but with the same drummer. All the local bands played there. Then in 1949, Rich Henderson who had the house band there and asked if I could come down and do a month at this club called the Bali" It was on this occasion that Earl Bostic came by to see the show. "Earl told me his bass player was leaving and asked if I could play. I wasn’t thinking about R&B, but I wanted to see the country," said Keter. "I played with Bostic from January 1949 to September 1951 and I sure learned about seeing the country." In 1950, Bostic needed a drummer and ask me if I knew one. I recommend Jimmie Cobb."

"We did a one-nighter in February 1951 with Dinah Washington. We hit it so well with her. Dinah was only carrying a piano player, Wynton Kelly. I recommended a drummer to Dinah and she said, ‘If you guys ever leave Earl, you got a job!’ So, the drummer and I left Bostic six months later and played with Dinah from November 1951 to October 1956," Keter recalled.

Obviously, Keter Betts was on his way. The amazing thing is that Keter has total recall of every date and time period during his illustrious career. "I was going up to where I never thought I would be, so I would mark a little self-diary in my mind 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s what happened in those periods," he said.

"Dinah gave my wife and I our wedding. We were working Birdland then. Dinah said, ‘This is a nice girl, why don’t you guys get married?’ So we went and got our marriage license at city hall and reserved the Adam Clayton Powell church. The head waiter from Birdland gave my wife away," Keter laughed. "We were married on October 6, 1953, our last date at Birdland for that engagement. Everybody was there and it turned out to be a real party. Tito Puente was working there and played for us," he said.

Keter and his wife raised five children, (three boys and twin girls), settling in the D.C. area. "We had our first son in 1955, so in October of 1956, I decided I would come off the road for awhile. Then in January of 1957, I started working at Abart’s Club in D.C. In June, I left there to play the Vineyard. That is where I hooked up with Charlie Byrd," said Keter. "They had a fire at the Vineyard, so Charlie and I, and the drummer, went into this other club across the street. We stayed about a month. Then we went into a club called the Showboat at 18th & Columbia Road in October 1957. That became a real hot spot with limos pulling up outside and everything."

In 1959, Keter and Charlie Byrd went on tour to Europe with Woody Herman, a tour arranged by the State Department. "Charlie and I and Nat Adderly, Vince Girardelli, Bill Harris, Jimmy Campbell seven of us altogether," said Keter. "We picked up nine more British musicians when we got there and toured England, Ireland, and Scotland for three weeks. We didn’t see the sun the whole time until we came back to London," he said. "After that, seven of us went on to Saudi Arabia and did an 8-day gig for the ARAMCO (Arab American Oil Company). We got to go swimming in the Dead Sea. I’m not a good swimmer, but the water is so salty, I did pretty well. Nobody had to give me mouth to mouth," laughed Keter. "Man, I looked like a pickled herring!"

Shortly after Keter’s European tour with Woody Herman, he and Byrd we went to South America for a three-month tour. "We got to go to almost every country, but we didn’t get to go to Bolivia because of the Bay of Pigs, so we took two weeks in Santiago, Chile," he recalled. Keter returned home after soaking up all that South American ambiance and in May 1961, he and Byrd started playing around D.C. again.

"Stan [Getz] came in one night and said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ ‘Playing Boss Nova!’ we said. Stan liked it and sat in with us," said Keter. "Afterwards, Stan said he thought we should do a record. We recorded a month later and it hit the fan!" Keter exclaimed. That recording was Getz’s 1962 album Jazz Samba. Keter can also be heard playing on Getz’s live ‘Getz/Gilberto #2’ album from 1964. "Bossa nova is so smooth and relaxing. Its simplicity is beautiful," said Keter.

Keter’s association with Charlie Byrd lasted through Byrd’s 9 Riverside and 2 Savoy albums. Then one day, Ray Brown came into town and asked Keter if he would like to go on tour with Ella Fitzgerald. Keter joined the Tommy Flanagan Trio in 1964. "I went on tour with Ella for nine months. We were on the road for a long time. After the tour, I played with Ella at Blues Alley until Ella went on vacation. She always took three month’s off every year," said Keter.

But, Keter Betts was not a musician waiting around long for another gig. "Tommy Gwaltney, clarinetist and owner of Blues Alley, contacted me and asked if I could come in the club because his bass player was sick. There was this drummer there and we joined together to do this show, like a local Today Show. We would play the theme or whatever. They had guest celebrities come on the show. Even Minnesota Fats was on. We did the TV show every day and 6 nights," said Keter, "so, I decided not to go back with Ella ‘cause by then we had 3 kids and we wanted to buy a house."

"I went back with Ella in 1966 to do a month in New York at the Americana Hotel with the big band, then again in 1968 for a 5-week European tour, all one-nighters," said Keter. When I got home from that, Roberta Flack called and I did I did 5 weeks with her and then went back with Ella to Europe."

After touring Europe Keter stayed closer to home, but rejoined Ella again in 1971, with he and Flanagan and various drummers over the years (Bobby Durham, Ed Thigpen, Gus Johnson). Keter toured off and on with Ella for an impressive 24 years, up until her last gig . "Our last gig together was at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach," said Keter. Burt Reynolds and Lorie Anderson were the hosts. It was a big event. Each artist did a cameo appearance. Everybody had a particular night and did a 15-minute spot Oscar Peterson, etc. That was in 1993," Keter said.

Besides Ella, Keter Betts has played along side many jazz greats over the years. One would wonder how he ever found the time, being a husband and father of five. His recordings included side work with Count Basie, Cannonball Adderly, Nat Adderly, Stan Getz, Kenny Burrell, Louis Bellson, Charlie Byrd, and Hamiet Bluiett, and his songs appear on Byrd, Bluiett, Sam Jones and Junior Mance recordings to name a few. Betts has been seen in concert around the world with a host of other jazz notables all the great players here and abroad.

"I’ve played for a lot of shows too," said Betts, "at Shady Grove in Rockville, Maryland, in Westbury, Long Island, Valley Forge, Painter’s Mills in New York. I did two summers in the pit," said Keter. "You know, for shows like ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and ‘Auntie Mame.’ It was fascinating. Angela Lansbury killed me!" chuckled Keter. "I did the pit for shows starring Carol Chaning, Jim Nabors, and Red Foxx. One was with Mickey Rooney and Martha Raye," he recalled. "They were so funny. I laughed so much, my stomach would be hurting," said Betts.

Keter’s recent activities included recording as a leader, beginning with Bass, Buddies, Blues & Beauty Too (1999) featuring Baltimore vocalist Ethel Ennis,Live at the East Coast Jazz Festival 2000, released in 2001 featuring Etta Jones, and a more recent release for stated for 2002. He continues to maintain a busy performance schedule, and teaches and lectures at universities and youth music workshops, like this year’s Head Start program at Wolf Trap. "We take the children ‘around the world’ with music," said Keter. Additionally, Keter recently performed in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald sponsored by the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Of course, you may also find Keter enjoying the golf course on a sunny day. His golf clubs are about the same weight as his base!

From his initial desire to "see the country," when he joined with Earl Bostic in 1949, Keter’s life-long career has taken him all over the world across the United States, Europe, South America, even behind the Iron Curtain. For more than a half a century, Keter’s attitude about the uniqueness of one man’s life and the heartfelt gift his talent can bring to others, set a fine example for the youth of today.

"There are two alarm clocks in the world," said Keter. "One will wake you up in 24, and the one in your head that points you in the direction to which you are best suited for. I’ve been very blessed and fortunate. When I go away, I can say I did something on this earth. Do good and make all people happy. That is the best you can do."

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  • Artist / Group Name: Keter Betts
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