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Keter Betts, 77; Bassist for Many Jazz Greats

August 10, 2005|From the Washington Post

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

The cause of death had not been determined, according to a funeral home in Washington, D.C.

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

Trumpeter Clark Terry, formerly with the Duke Ellington orchestra, said Betts was "on the top plateau of all the bass players."

Betts teamed with Byrd, the lyrical guitarist who made his name with sensual, samba-inspired bossa nova music. They took several State Department-sponsored trips abroad.

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

Although Betts performed on the million-selling album "Jazz Samba" (1962), 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 Betts doing the supple bass-line introduction.

William Thomas Betts was born in Port Chester, N.Y., on July 22, 1928, and 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.

He first learned to play the drums but switched to the bass in 1946, during his senior year in high school. In 1949, while Betts was playing at Washington's Club Bali, R&B bandleader Earl Bostic heard and hired him.

Betts made his recording debut that year on Bostic's "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams."

He met Dinah Washington in 1951, when she and pianist Wynton Kelly were working with Bostic's band. The singer offered Betts a job, and he spent five years with the Queen of the Blues and cut several classic records, including "Dinah Jams" (1954) and "Dinah!" (1956).

Betts played with Fitzgerald in the mid-1960s and again from 1971 to 1993, often doing weeks of one-nighters around the world.

He emerged as a bandleader with a flurry of recent CDs and composed a handful of songs.

Survivors include five children and four grandchildren.

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