The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

city

Keter Betts

Legendary jazz bassist William Thomas "Keter" Betts was born July 22, 1928, in Port Chester, New York. While running an errand for his mother while in the fifth grade, Betts came across a parade. Instead of continuing on his way, he followed the parade all over town, entranced by the music. That incident marked the beginning of his love affair with music.

Starting out on the drums, Betts tired of carrying the set up and down the four floors to his family apartment, and in 1946, he switched to the bass. When Betts was only nineteen, he landed his first professional gig, playing for thirteen weeks in Washington, D.C., with saxophonist Carmen Leggio. After touring the country from 1949 to 1951, Betts met jazz singer Dinah Washington and toured with her from 1951 until 1956. The next five years found Betts working in the hottest clubs in the country and touring Europe and South America with Charlie Byrd and Woody Herman. In 1964, Betts joined up with Ella Fitzgerald for a short tour. He would rejoin her several more times, and their career together would span twenty-four years.

Betts was an instructor of music at Howard University in Washington, D.C., since 1963, and also instructed young adults through various programs, including the Washington Performing Arts Society's Concerts in Schools and Prince George's County's Arts Alive. Despite appearing in more than 100 recordings, it was not until 1998 that Betts released his first solo album, Bass, Buddies & Blues, and followed it up a year later with Bass, Buddies, Blues Beauty Too.

Betts was a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Big Band and was inducted into the Washington Area Music Association Hall of Fame. Betts performed annually at the All-Star Christmas Jazz Jam on Millennium Stage from 2000 to 2004.

Betts passed away on August 6, 2005 at age 77.

Accession Number

A2003.110

Sex

Male

Interview Date

5/28/2003

Last Name

Betts

Maker Category
Middle Name

Thomas

Occupation
Organizations
First Name

William

Birth City, State, Country

Port Chester

HM ID

BET01

Favorite Season

Birthday

State

New York

Favorite Quote

Thank You.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date

7/22/1928

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Spaghetti, Seafood

Death Date

8/6/2005

Short Description

Bassist Keter Betts (1928 - 2005 ) played professionally from 1949, appearing on more than 100 recordings while touring with the likes of Dinah Washington, Charlie Byrd, Woody Herman and Ella Fitzgerald.

Employment

Howard University

Favorite Color

Brown

Timing Pairs
0,0:19152,263:30978,410:31382,415:43370,615:43902,620:68612,971:69432,990:76133,1032:77117,1041:81630,1085:108816,1495:109224,1505:109700,1559:113098,1597:135192,1940:135524,1945:145480,2074$0,0:9342,143:18690,291:27790,377:30023,417:32497,444:33118,604:43486,752:93100,1389:105456,1528:112783,1685:127330,1842:161930,2355:167305,2442:167720,2448:169546,2472:170293,2481:179229,2649:183631,2743:201340,3091:244868,3609:249624,3723:255630,3781
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Keter Betts's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Keter Betts lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes how he got his nickname

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Keter Betts describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Keter Betts describes his desire to become a musician

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Keter Betts describes his childhood in Port Chester, New York with his mother and aunts

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Keter Betts describes an early musical gig and his aunts' suspicions about how he earned money

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Keter Betts describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Keter Betts describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Keter Betts describes his childhood personality and dedication to music

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Keter Betts describes hearing the marching band drums and his first snare drum

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Keter Betts describes his teenage development as a drummer

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Keter Betts describes his mother's support of his bass playing

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Keter Betts describes learning independence from his mother

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes switching from playing drums to playing bass

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Keter Betts describes how being director of the chorus developed his understanding of music

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Keter Betts describes being influenced by music in movies

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Keter Betts describes some of the musicians who influenced him in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Keter Betts recounts finding a teacher and buying his first bass

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Keter Betts describes how his bass allows him to express himself

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Keter Betts describes being influenced by Panama Francis and Tommy Flanagan

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Keter Betts describes the beginning of his career as a professional bassist

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Keter Betts describes how playing the drums influenced his bass playing

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Keter Betts describes the quartet he played with in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Keter Betts describes learning to play by practicing in New York jazz clubs

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Keter Betts describes the jazz clubs around U Street in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes not worrying about money

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Keter Betts describes hearing Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown perform in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Keter Betts describes the African American theater circuit on the East Coast and in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Keter Betts talks about what he learned from bandleaders like Earl Bostic and Cootie Williams

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Keter Betts describes playing with Dinah Washington

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Keter Betts describes his wedding and marriage to Mildred Grady Betts

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Keter Betts describes traveling with Dinah Washington, Charlie Byrd, and Ella Fitzgerald

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Keter Betts describes earning his reputation as a singer's bass player

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Keter Betts describes the hits Dinah Washington had while playing with her

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Keter Betts shares his stories about Dinah Washington, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Keter Betts shares his stories about Dinah Washington, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes how his personality was affected by growing up an only child

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Keter Betts describes the cause of Dinah Washington's career demise

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Keter Betts describes how singers interpret and project songs through diction

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Keter Betts describes his experience traveling across the United States

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Keter Betts describes ending his touring to take care of his family

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Keter Betts describes traveling to Brazil with Charlie Byrd and discovering the bossa nova

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Keter Betts reflects on the ups and downs of careers in music

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Keter Betts describes his appreciation of Brazilian music and his South American tour in 1961

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes the racial progress that he witnessed while on tour during his career

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Keter Betts talks about his international tours from 1959 until 1961

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Keter Betts talks about his appreciation of Brazilian music

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Keter Betts describes his experience recording "Jazz Samba" with Stan Getz and the lawsuit that followed

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Keter Betts talks about other musicians who played with Stan Getz and Dinah Washington

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Keter Betts describes recording "Jazz Samba" with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Keter Betts describes his friendship with Ray Brown and their mutual enjoyment of golf, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Keter Betts describes his friendship with Ray Brown and their mutual enjoyment of golf, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Keter Betts describes his bass-playing style compared to that of Ray Brown

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Keter Betts describes how jazz musicians have aided or ostracized female musicians

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Keter Betts reflects on the experience of making an audience happy during a performance

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes the types of venues where Ella Fitzgerald performed

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Keter Betts shares his funniest story about performing with Ella Fitzgerald

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Keter Betts describes why he stayed in Ella Fitzgerald's band for twenty-four years

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Keter Betts talks about the eccentricities different singers bring to performances

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Keter Betts describes his experience playing with Ella Fitzgerald

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Keter Betts describes adjusting to the stylistic differences between Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Keter Betts describes his experience touring

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes playing with Ella Fitzgerald

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Keter Betts talks about Tommy Flanagan leaving Ella Fitzgerald's band

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Keter Betts talks about traveling with Ella Fitzgerald and how performing keeps entertainers young

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Keter Betts talks about playing with Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Keter Betts reflects on how he has enjoyed his career

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Keter Betts describes the security that he and Tommy Flanagan provided for Ella Fitzgerald

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Keter Betts talks about his favorite male vocalists

Tape: 7 Story: 10 - Keter Betts describes playing a final concert with Ella Fitzgerald in 1993

Tape: 7 Story: 11 - Keter Betts reflects upon the deaths of Ella Fitzgerald, his wife, and his mother

Tape: 7 Story: 12 - Keter Betts describes his experience recording his first solo album in 1998

Tape: 7 Story: 13 - Keter Betts reflects upon his career as a musician and his plans for retirement

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Keter Betts talks about his plans to keep playing bass after retiring

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Keter Betts reflects upon his regrets

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Keter Betts describes his mother's pride in hearing him play with Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Keter Betts reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Keter Betts lists some of his favorite bassists and reflects on the future of jazz

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Keter Betts plays his bass

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Keter Betts narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

5$6

DATitle
Keter Betts describes his desire to become a musician
Keter Betts describes his experience traveling across the United States
Transcript
And so how I got the music part came was-- I was in the fifth grade and my mother [Mariah Betts] sent me around the corner. We had an account with this Italian store, she sent me around the corner to get a loaf of bread and bottle of milk. And when I came out, something came behind and I said, "Whoa, what is that," and I followed it and it was an Italian parade. And I walked over all over town for about four hours following this parade behind the drums. And when I came home, I had the loaf of bread squeezed up, milk was warm, you know (laughter) and my mother like to killed me. "Where have you been? I have been worried to death, somebody said you followed behind a parade," and I said, "That's right." And then I was sitting there sniffling and so forth and I said "Mom, I wanna play the drums." And I guess she figured well, if I give him a licking, he keeps on ticking, he must be serious. So I got, next month, I got a little snare drum. And I got a picture of me with shorts, polo shirt and--and that's it. I realized that the way things, there are that certain things happen in life is that, I guess I coined the phrase, there's two clocks in the world, there's only two. There's one that can wake you up anytime in twenty-four hours that you wanna get up, you know, but there's another one that can go off inside of your head and point you in a direction that you best suited for, for a profession in life and you must hear that clock, cause a lot of people don't hear that. So when you hear it, then you became like the captain of your own ship because you, setting up your destiny. And those that don't hear it, they become row boaters. They just sit in a row boat and they go along with the tide. Hey can you pull me along, because they have no ambition, no motor, no sails. But then as you set a goal, when you run into storms, you have to alter the course, but you're going toward that goal, which is the most important thing. And I knew right from that day, from that parade, when I got that first drum, that's it, I gonna be a musician.$Now how was life on the road like then?$$You don't wanna be there. It was rough, I mean for me coming from the north, born and raised in it. When I went with [Earl] Bostic on the first Southern tour, I mean because my folks, they talked about--that didn't mean nothing to me. We had this just a little thing out there, but I was taught by some of the older guys in the band that it's a different way of life we're going to but just remember this that when you go each one of these towns, "You're just going to play, you're not going to stay." And that was the motto, you're going to play, you're not going to stay. So be yourself, just the way you are, but don't think of it, don't let it carry a heavy burden, cause you're not gone take up roots there. And you learned, and it was different, it was--but one thing that really fascinated me was, you play all the dances, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and so forth and they would have white spectators. They would sell tickets, in fact this lady was writing a big book on Dinah--I got a lot stuff here, it was spectators one dollar, participants, two dollars and a quarter for a dance. And she wanted to know why was it one dollar; I said what does the word say, spectator. I mean they could not dance, they could just see, so they would have a rope, and you say the room was yay wide, one fourth would be roped up that way and the rest would be for the dance, they used to cut the rope. And come over, you know, and the sheriffs and the policemen, get back over there and put the rope up. I've seen them cut the rope four times that night. The thing that meant the most to me was the fact that the power of music was so that--like somebody go completely contrary of what the rules would be just to dance, because that rhythm that's reaching them. So you see that there is something to music that's--as they say music serves, what is it, tames the savage beast, yeah. And when you go to--when we go to like traveling Europe or behind the Iron Curtain, you know, half or maybe three fourths of--don't understand the words and yet they're fascinated. I'm talking about like we're behind a singer or even just with a group that be playing and they're fascinated, that is the power of music.$$Now so not-- life on the road never just disappointed you where you said I don't want this anymore, or was it just the comradery or the family or the--(simultaneous)$$No, I think that, first of all, the reason I really went with [Earl] Bostic was one, I wanted to see the country--I mean I was pretty good in geography. And I knew that we had a big country, so I said well, if I have to see it, this is the best way because by then, it was all--everything was traveling by cars. The Big Bands had busses, and so you got a chance to see the country and see the difference. I'm fascinated to be driving through Arizona or some place and sightseeing big copper mine, go see this, go see a ghost town. You know when I first saw the Grand Canyon, oh Lord, because you see that in the movies it just a big--but when you see that in person and standing you can't believe that this monstrous and see the caverns and Jesse James' hideout, Dr. [George Washington] Carver's home where he was born that's, you know. Now you get the Interstates, you bypass all that, you don't see nothing. I can get the Interstate---I can leave here and go up here and what three lights or so forth and get on the Beltway and I can go all the way to California. Probably don't see another light until you get to (unclear). But then it was all by those highways, which was the scenic view, and go up to from L.A. [Los Angeles, California], up Seattle [Washington] and take the coast line and you, get to see the beauty of this country.