Keter Betts

2003 Living Legacy Awardee

Black and white photo of Keter Betts with his bass.

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Image: Keter Betts. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.

Distinguished bassist William Thomas “Keter” Betts has played professionally for six decades. Born in Port Chester, New York, he studied jazz drums in New York City, switching to the bass in 1946, the year he graduated from high school. At the age of 19, he played his first professional gig – 13 weeks with tenor saxophonist Carmen Leggio in Washington, D.C. He played for Duke Ellington on the road, and is recognized and appreciated by musicians and jazz aficionados for his contributions to the bands of Earl Bostic, Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderly, and Woody Herman. He maintained a long relationship with guitarist Charlie Byrd and pianists Junior Mance and Tommy Flanagan. As a member of the Tommy Flanagan Trio, Mr. Betts backed Ella Fitzgerald beginning in 1965. In 1971, he joined her band full-time for an unprecedented 24-year stretch. Betts played with Fitzgerald until her final performance in 1993.

Considered by jazz critics to be one of the most important journeyman bassists of the genre, his bluesy, melodic, and thick tone and his creative use of string popping and glissando have long made him an in-demand player. Other leading musicians with whom he has recorded and performed are Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Tommy Flanagan, Bobby Durham, Ed Thigpen, Gus Johnson, Hamiet Bluiett, Sam Jones, Joe Pass, Clifford Brown, Kenny Burrell, Louis Bellson, and Joe Williams. Keter Betts’ bass can be heard on more than 100 recordings spanning the many years of his career. His solo CD, Bass Buddies & Blues, was released in 1998 on his own label. The next year a follow-up recording, Bass, Buddies, Blues & Beauty Too, featured the world renowned Baltimore vocalist Ethel Ennis.

Mr. Betts has served as musical coordinator for jazz programming at Black Entertainment Television and as a music lecturer at Howard University. He has also designed educational programs for young adults, devoting his time to various Washington area educational programs, including Washington Performing Arts Society’s Concerts in Schools, Wolf Trap’s HeadStart program, and Prince George’s County’s Arts Alive. He has been a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Big Band and a contributor to its jazz programs. Mr. Betts is an inductee into the Washington Area Music Association Hall of Fame, as well as the recipient of the Linowes Leadership Award from the Community Foundation for the National Capitol Region. Keter Betts has appeared many times at the Kennedy Center, and since 2000, his band has performed annually in the All-Star Christmas Jazz Jam on the Millennium Stage.

Keter Betts (1928-2005)

*Bio from Award presentation.