Having played with some of the most important and influential names in jazz in a career that spans six decades, Keter Betts is perhaps one of the most important journeyman bassists of the genre. His bluesy, melodic, and thick tone and creative use of string popping and glissando have long made him an in-demand player. Born in Port Chester, NY, he traveled to New York City as a youth to study jazz drums, but eventually grew tired of hauling his Gene Krupa kit up and down four flights of stairs. He switched to bass in 1946, the year he graduated high school. He landed his first professional gig with tenor saxophonist Carmen Leggio in Washington, D.C. A four-week stay turned into 13 weeks. Betts was 19. He would later settle in the city and raise five children with his wife.
Constant work in D.C. and New York led to a job with R&B barnstormer Earl Bostic (1949) and later Dinah Washington. He joined the employ of Washington, D.C., guitarist Charlie Byrd in 1957, staying with him through the bossa nova craze, which found him playing on dates alongside Stan Getz and Antonio Carlos Jobim. As a member of the Tommy Flanagan Trio, Betts backed Ella Fitzgerald beginning in 1965. In 1971, he joined her band full-time for an unprecedented 24-year stretch. Flanagan and Betts, alongside various drummers (including Bobby Durham, Ed Thigpen, and Gus Johnson), formed an infallible rhythm section: flexible, swinging, playful, warm, and refined -- all the qualities Fitzgerald herself personified. Betts played with Fitzgerald until her final performance in 1993. Sidework over the years has also included recordings with Hamiet Bluiett, Sam Jones, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Pass, Clifford Brown, Kenny Burrell, Louis Bellson, and Joe Williams.
It wasn't until 1998 that Betts ever recorded under his own leadership. The self-released Bass, Buddies & Blues (1998) was followed a year later by Bass, Buddies, Blues & Beauty Too, featuring Baltimore vocalist Ethel Ennis. Live at the East Coast Jazz Festival (2000) featured Etta Jones. In his later years, Betts maintained an impressive schedule, performing and lecturing at schools and youth music workshops in the Washington, D.C., area. He also served as musical coordinator for jazz programming at Black Entertainment Television and as an instructor/lecturer at Howard University. Betts passed away at age 77 in his home in Silver Spring, MD, in 2005. ~ John Duffy, Rovi