William "Keter" Betts
July 22, 1928 – August 6, 2005
Born in Port Chester, New York
Jazz Bassist, Composer, Educator
William Thomas “Keter” Betts was a world renowned jazz bassist with more than 200 recordings to his credit. Throughout his career, he played with some of the most important and influential names in jazz, including guitarist Charlie Byrd, drummer Louie Bellson, and singers Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Joe Williams.
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.
Betts credits an Italian parade for inspiring his musical career. In fifth grade, his mother sent him to the store for groceries. He saw a parade and followed the drummer all over town for hours. Although scolded upon his return, he convinced his mother to buy him his first drum. During his senior year in high school he switched to the bass—inspired both by meeting Cab Calloway's bassist, Milt Hinton, and carrying a drum set up four flights of stairs to his apartment.
In the mid-1950s, Betts made the Washington, DC area his home and 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 Washington, DC and made several State Department-sponsored trips abroad. He played in Ella Fitzgerald’s band during the mid-1960s and again from 1971 to 1993. He also played in bands with Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Woody Herman, Nat Adderley, Joe Pass, Clifford Brown and Vince Guaraldi.
Mr. Betts was devoted to teaching America’s youth about music through lectures and workshops. He lectured at Howard University in Washington, DC and was active in various Washington area educational programs, including the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Concerts in Schools, Wolf Trap’s Head Start program, and Prince George’s County’s Arts Alive. He was a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Big Band and contributor to their jazz programs. He was also known for amazing young children by playing "Happy Birthday" in different styles: classical, Brazilian, country and western, rock and jazz. He was inducted into the Washington Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame, has performed with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and is a recipient of the Benny Golson Jazz Master Award.
A musician, bandleader and composer, his discography includes over 100 jazz albums and two self-released compact discs. His most notable composition is the sweet and tender "Pinky's Waltz," in memory of his wife, Mildred Grady Betts, who died in 2000.Betts had five children, William Betts Jr. of Washington, Jon Betts of Olney, Derek Betts of Los Angeles and Jacquelyn Betts and Jennifer Betts, both of Silver Spring; and four grandchildren.
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