Watching Keter Betts' fingers glide effortlessly over the strings of the bass, you might think that a pint-size bass awaited him in his cradle when he was born. But Betts began his musical life as a drummer.
It's just that there was this problem.
"I'd worked my way up to the Gene Krupa model --- two tom-toms," says Betts, "But we lived on the fourth floor with no elevator and I'd have to make three trips up and down."
The bass wasn't exactly a flute, but when Betts switched he only had to make one trip.
Betts, who will be one of the featured performers at The Commission Project's Swing 'n Jazz Festival (Friday, May 30, through Sunday, June 1), was something of a musical protégé while growing up in the 1940s. At 16 he was already directing the chorus at his high school in Port Chester, New York.
Every Saturday he journeyed into Manhattan to take drum, and eventually bass, lessons. While there, he took in all the bands playing at the Roxy, the Strand, the Paramount, the Capitol, and the Apollo. He knew exactly where he wanted to be.
By the late-1940s, Betts had earned his way into Earl Bostic's band, one of the finest of the era. It wasn't long before he began to have an impact on the history of jazz.
"In 1950 Bostic told me he needed a new drummer," Betts says. "I'd come down to Washington twice before and I knew this drummer, Jimmy Cobb." Bostic hired Cobb, who went on to become one of the greats. "About a month or two later Bostic said, 'You guys are getting a little too bebopish back there.' So Jimmy and I kind of cooled it."
One night in 1951 Dinah Washington shared the bill with Bostic.
"She was just carrying a piano player, so Jimmy and I played with her and it jelled so good that she said 'If you guys ever leave Bostic, you've got a job.' The piano player was Wynton Kelly. We left Bostic in November and joined her."
Even traveling with popular acts in the early 1950s, Betts couldn't avoid encountering some racism.
"Not some of it, all of it, which was kind of bewildering to me because of being born and raised in a town that was 80-percent Italian. My mother's family was from North Carolina. They'd talked about it but it didn't mean nothin' to me until I encountered it with Bostic."
Betts could immediately see the absurdity of Jim Crow laws in the South.
"They used to put ropes up between black dancers and white spectators. The whites had to stand and look. So they would cut the rope and they'd be out there dancing. The sheriff would say 'Get back over there' and put the rope back up. I've seen them cut the rope four times in one night.
"I learned one thing: the power of music," Betts says. "When these people are hearing it and feeling it, they want to do what everybody else is doing and dance to it."
The transition to working with a singer was a learning experience for Betts, who was used to playing off the changes in Bostic's band.
"When I worked with Dinah that opened my eyes to a different kinds of music," he says. "If you look at a sheet of music there's the melody and there's the words in the center and the changes at the bottom. It was a whole new tune to me. I realized that playing bass you're in the middle. You're playing rhythm with the drums on one side and chords with the piano player on the other side. So you have to blend those two together."
Betts learned his lesson well; his next job, with another phenomenal singer, lasted 24 years.
Working with Ella Fitzgerald taught Betts what it meant to be a good bass player.
"You've got to be a tailor; you've got to custom fit the person up front."
Fitzgerald gave Betts a workout every night with her improvisatory style.
"That's when you have to have gears because wherever she goes, we had to go with her," he says. "I was fortunate that when I joined her Tommy Flanagan was her pianist and Gus Johnson was playing drums. Nothing was written out so you had to be on your Ps and Qs and learn these things. It became an adventure. You adapted. Your ears and mind are constantly open."
Open to what's happening on the stage, but closed to the outside world.
"When you accompany a singer be ready to have total concentration and don't bring anything on the bandstand. If you have an argument with your wife or your girlfriend just before you go to work, or you can't find a parking space, don't bring that on the bandstand."
Betts, who accompanied Fitzgerald until her last performance in1993, became close friends with the singer.
"She called me her lawyer," he says. "She confided in me and she knew that the things she confided were just between us."
Working with Fitzgerald would have assured him a place in the history books, but Betts was also on hand for the birth of a musical craze. It happened while he was touring Brazil with Charlie Byrd in the late 1950s.
"When we got to Bahia a judge there invited us to his house. After dinner, he took out a guitar and played something. Then he passed it to his wife and she played and then his daughter. The son had some brushes and he had this little beat. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said 'Bossa Nova.' The next day the judge took us into town and we bought two albums, one by [Antonio Carlos] Jobim and one by [Joao] Gilberto."
But not everyone was ready for the new music.
Betts had been doing some recordings with Cannonball [Adderley] on Riverside, so he gave the records to the label's owner, Orrin Keepnews.
"I said, 'I think this is going to be something big.' He sent them both back to me a month later and said, 'No, I don't think much of them.' He and I still talk about it whenever I see him. He says, 'You showed me and I just didn't see it.'"
Musicians were more open.
"A little later we talked Charlie into playing a couple of tunes. Stan Getz came in to the club one night and said, 'What the hell are you guys doing up there?' We said 'The Bossa Nova.' He said 'We ought to record this.'"
Betts ended up playing on many of Getz's Bossa Nova sessions.
In addition to playing, Betts is now heavily involved in music education. He's been a part of the Swing 'n Jazz Festival from the beginning. (All money raised by the festival helps fund The Commission Project's music education programs.)
Of course there are other attractions to the festival for Betts.
"Ray Brown and I had a motto: bass fiddle, golf clubs, American Express --- don't leave home without 'em."
As for Betts, most of his education took place on the road with the old masters.
"The night I learned the most, I was with Dinah in Boston and I went to see Slam Stewart. In the first row were the Boston Symphony's bass players. They're all sitting there totally amazed that this guy can have his plywood Kay bass and a plywood bow and they've got Amatis and $5,000 and $10,000 bows. I learned that night that what Slam did was not play into the bass but play out of the bass. He's standing there with the instrument but he's not playing it! Real good musicians are playing themselves and coming through it! It's the person's mind. Dizzy Gillespie isn't playing the trumpet; he's playing himself. You have to have complete control of your mind."
Swing 'n Jazz schedule
Trumpeters' Night Out with John Faddis, Paul Smoker, Mike Kaupa, Quinn Lawrence and John Sneider, takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 30, at Shadow Pines Golf Club Tent, 600 Whalen Road, Penfield. Tickets: $15, $10, students.
Gala Concert featuring Jon Faddis (music director), Carl Atkins, Keter Betts, Mike Holober, Clay Jenkins, Mike Kaupa, Mark Kellogg, Jay Leonhart, Paul Smoker, Bob Sneider, John Sneider, Bob Stata, Akira Tana, Rich Thompson and Walt Weiskopf, takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 31, at Hochstein Performance Hall, 50 North Plymouth Avenue, Tickets: $50 VIP (includes post-concert gourmet reception); $20; $10, students. (Friday and Saturday concert tickets available through Ticket Express, Ticketmaster and Canandaigua National Bank. Charge by phone: 585-232-1900)
Swing 'n Jazz Golf Tournament takes place at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, June 1, at Greystone Golf Club, 1400 Atlantic Avenue, Walworth. Celebrity guest: Doug Embledge. Dine and Jam: 5:30 p.m. Information: 585-256-7475.
Free Educational Workshops, hosted by the musicians, will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, June 1, at the following locations: Greece Arcadia High School, 120 Island Cottage Road, Greece; Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs Street; Midtown Plaza, Main Street; Nathaniel Rochester Community School, 85 Adams Street; School of the Arts, 45 Prince Street and Nazareth College, 4245 East Ave. Students of all ages are invited to bring instruments (or not). Info:Alan Tirre at 585-242-7682 x1170.