While not the most prominent instrument in jazz, the bass is one of its most essential elements. In a jazz quintet, one of the responsiblities of the bass is to help drive the rhythm section steadily forward while keeping the music interesting. All of this is done in an effort to support the soloist and make them look good (and ultimately make the audience feel good). Remove the deep earthy pulse of the bass and the listener would immediately take notice. When Keter Betts left us on August 6, 2005, everyone who knew him as an artist and a human being could feel the void that will remain with his passing.
William Thomas "Keter" Betts was born on July 22, 1928 in Port Chester, New York. While running an errand for his mother, he heard a parade and was irresistibly drawn to music. He started out playing the drums but grew weary of lugging them up four flights of stairs to his apartment. In 1946 Betts switched to bass, the instrument on which he would become one of the most sought after and respected masters.
Through the course of his career, Betts performed with a list of people who read like a who's who in jazz. Betts played with Dinah Washington from 1951 through 1956. In 1963 he teamed up with Ella Fitzgerald for a musical relationship that lasted an incredible 24 years. He also worked with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd in 1962 to record Jazz Samba. Betts' memorable introduction to the song "Desafinado" is an excellent example of why he was so appreciated and admired throughout his career. In addition to the legends already mentioned, Betts also played with Clifford Brown, Nat Adderley, Oscar Peterson, Vince Guaraldi and Count Basie just to name a few. In all, he has performed on over 100 recordings.
At the age of 70, Betts was still going strong. In 1998 he recorded his first album as leader entitled Bass Buddies & Blues. In 1999, that album was followed by Bass, Buddies, Blues & Beauty Too and Live at the East Coast Jazz Festival in 2000. All three albums provide a fantastic look at one of jazz's greatest ambassadors. A respected and loved member of the Washington D.C. jazz scene, Betts took an active role in music education by participating in numerous youth programs throughout the region.
Betts will be missed, but his music and memory will live on through the countless people he has contacted and touched throughout his life. Like the upright bass in a jazz quintet, those memories will move us forward with encouragement and a smileultimately making us feel good.