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Profile: Jazz bassist Keter Betts

Finally this evening, we leave you with jazz bassist Keter Betts, who celebrated his 75th birthday this week. For most of his career, Keter Betts has been on the periphery of the spotlight. He laid down suave bass lines for the likes of Dinah Washington and Stan Getz, and for 24 years he was Ella Fitzgerald's bass player. Her concerts featured playful and unpredictable exchanges with Betts. His music can be heard on more than 200 albums, but it wasn't until he was in his 70s that Betts recorded a CD of his own. He continues to perform, record and live quietly in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is how he describes his music in his own words.

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Mr. BETTS: I had a friend that used to sell cars up in Silver Spring. I ran into him one day and he said to me, `You know, because of you I'm selling a lot of cars,' and I said, `You mean, me?' He said, `No, the instrument you play, bass.' And I said, `How so?' He said young guys would come into the showroom and they'd just look at a car and they'd said, `Can I have the key?' and get inside and turn on the radio and turn the bass all the way up and turn the volume all the way up and if the car--I mean, if the speakers didn't break up, they'd say, `I'll take it.' They didn't care what kind of motor it had, they didn't even look in the trunk to see what space it had. Just all because of the bass.

Mr. BETTS: In the fifth grade, my mother sent me around the corner to the store to get a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk. When I came out of the store something came by, and I said, `What the heck is that?' and I followed it, and it was an Italian parade. And I walked behind the drummers all over town. I was gone four hours. When I got home, my mother liked to kill me. And she figured, `Well, if I give him a licking, he keeps on ticking, he must be serious.'

Mr. BETTS: In the beginning when I first started, the main part of the bass was to learn the changes to each song. But when I went with Dinah and started hearing the words and the melody, I'm learning the whole song instead of just the bottom part, you know; also the middle and the top. And I found out that I liked almost being like a tailor.

Ms. DINAH WASHINGTON: (Singing) You go to my head and you linger like a haunting refrain, and I find you spinning round in my brain like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Oh, you go to my head like a simple sparkling burgundy brew, and I find the very mention of you like the kicker in a julep or two. Oh...

Mr. BETTS: My concept is that the singer comes at this buck naked, and it's my job then to dress that person for the audience. Person comes in and I'm a tailor and they want a certain type of jacket made with a double print and this big guy wants some made with no print and so forth, if you dress each one of those the way they want to be fitted, and when they come out of there, their clothes fit them well, you're a good tailor. And I started tailor making my bass to fit with the singing.

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Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) The sky was blue and high above...

Mr. BETTS: And then the, well, 24 years with Ella was, you know, top of the line employment.

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) Yes, my heart belongs to daddy 'cause my daddy, he cheats so well. Diamonds. Diamonds. My man. What else would you say about him, Keter? You don't say? What? What? Oh, the dirty old man!

Mr. BETTS: My daughter, she looked up on the Internet, and she said, `You've been on so many albums, why don't you put out one?' At that time, I was preparing to try to get a boat, something been my biggest wish for 30 years ago. And then my wife and I talked about it and I said, `Well, maybe I will put out a CD.'

Mr. BETTS: Being behind everybody for umpteen ages or so forth, I just wanted to do something a little different in my contribution to music. Ba boom bu bu bu bu boom, ba boom. The object was the calm before the storm, and they were the storm; I was calm. Ba da.

Mr. BETTS: Let them be the storm, and I'm the cool. OK, fellas, calm down.

Mr. BETTS: And I didn't play no solo in that at all. I'm calm.

Mr. BETTS: When you write things, you write something that you feel from within. On the last album I wrote a song called "Pinky's Waltz," and it was dedicated to my wife, who had passed away. At the recording studio, she and Etta Jones were sitting there talking and they were talking about pakimo(ph).

Mr. BETTS: You know, you learn a lot on the golf course. A doctor friend I was playing with one day, he said something--he was questioning--he loved jazz, but he questioned me about what's the closest--of all the rhythms in music, what's the closest to the heartbeat?

Mr. BETTS: And I tried to figure out. I couldn't say what. And he says, `Well, 3/4. 3/4 is the closest, which is waltz time.' Toom, toom, toom, boody boody di di di di di. There's just a little snap to it, and that's the way the heart beats.

Mr. BETTS: Ba boom, boom, ba boom. So I said, `I'm gonna put this in a waltz because it shows that it's really coming from the heart.'

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LYDEN: The music and the words of jazz bass player Keter Betts. We heard from him as part of Musicians in Their Own Words, an occasional series on NPR produced by David Schulman and supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He celebrated his 75th birthday on Tuesday.

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