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Jazz Bassist Keter Betts Dies at 77

Keter Betts was
Keter Betts was "on the top plateau of all the bass players," a fellow musician said. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Keter Betts, 77, a jazz bassist heard on more than 200 recordings, notably with guitarist Charlie Byrd and singers Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, was found dead Aug. 6 at his home in Silver Spring.

The cause of death has not been determined, according to the McGuire funeral home in the District.

Trumpeter Clark Terry, formerly with the Duke Ellington and "Tonight Show" orchestras, said Mr. Betts was "on the top plateau of all the bass players."

Mr. Betts played in bands with Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Woody Herman, Nat Adderley, Joe Pass, Clifford Brown and Vince Guaraldi.

After he made the Washington area his home in the mid-1950s, Mr. Betts teamed with Byrd, the lyrical guitarist who made his name with sensual, samba-inspired bossa nova music. They were regulars at the Showboat Lounge in the District and made several State Department-sponsored trips abroad.

During one trip to Brazil, Mr. Betts became enthralled with samba records and, he said, spent months persuading Byrd to play the music around Washington.

Although Mr. Betts was on the million-selling "Jazz Samba" (1962) album -- recorded at Washington's All Souls Unitarian Church -- stars Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz were credited with launching the bossa nova craze in the United States.

One of the most memorable songs from the album, "Desafinado," featured Mr. Betts doing the supple bass-line introduction. But his contribution to finding the music went unheralded until recent years, after he spoke to JazzTimes magazine about his role.

Ken Kimery, a producer and drummer with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, told The Washington Post in 2003: "My experience with him is that he feels the story will come out, and he does not feel he'll have to be the one who takes the effort to do that. . . . Here's a gentleman who's done so much and does not feel the need to self-promote."

William Thomas Betts was born in Port Chester, N.Y., July 22, 1928, and was raised by his single mother, a domestic worker. He got his nickname when a family friend said the baby was as cute as a mosquito. Mosquito became Skeeter, then Keter.

One day, his mother sent the youngster for milk and bread at the market. Thrilled by the sound of a passing Italian parade, he followed the drummer across town. He was gone four hours with the milk and bread.

"My mother almost killed me when I got home," he told an interviewer. "I got a whippin'. After that, I told my mother I wanted to play drums."


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