There is a well-known story about the late singer Ella Fitzgerald, which her bass player, Keter Betts, recently recalled for me. When she was young, she entered a talent contest at New York's Apollo Theater - as a dancer. As she waited in the wings, the act before her consisted of three girls who danced so well she decided that, compared to them, she was no dancer. So at the last minute, she changed her act and sang instead. She won the contest, was noticed, and her career grew from there.
But I was talking to Keter Betts to confirm a story about him, a story my mother told me that is not so well known. It happens to be on the same subject: the amazing ways in which people are led to new callings.
In the late 1960s, after my brother and I went off at college, my mother, Evelyn Ordman, retired from being an active member of the Parent Teacher Association of Montgomery County, Md. She took a job working for that school system. Her assignments included recruiting volunteers and seeking cultural enrichment programs, especially in connection with the schools receiving enrichment funding under the federal Title I program. She sometimes found these volunteers in very unexpected ways. And some of the people she worked with were affected in ways neither she nor they expected.
One of the schools in the northern part of the county, Taylor Elementary, had a not-uncommon problem: The white children included the children of landowners or professionals, and were stylishly dressed. The black children were typically the children of sharecroppers or maintenance workers and were often dressed in hand-me-downs. (Frequently, for the girls, these were the rich girls' castoff party dresses.)
The school principal asked Evelyn: "Could you find us a black professional man who could visit the school? The children need to see a successful black man."
Evelyn, fairly new at her job, might have had no idea where to start. But that week she had a phone call from one of her cousins. Arthur was a very short and slight man, who had an adopted son who was comparatively gigantic. And the son had just gotten into a fight on the school playground with a fellow pupil.
Arthur said, "This immense black man appeared at the door, asked for me, and when I came to the door he broke out laughing." The man had said, once he'd controlled his laughter, "Your kid beat up my kid, and I came over to talk. Your son is so big that I thought you'd be my size, and I was worried one of us might take a poke at the other. But given our difference in sizes, maybe you should just talk to your kid about fighting at school."
Arthur could tell Evelyn that the man was named Keter Betts, that he looked respectable, and that he lived in a nice neighborhood. So Evelyn called Mr. Betts and asked what he did.
"I'm a musician," he said.
"Great," said my mother. "Could you come visit one of our schools?"
He said, "Do you know anything about me?"
"No, just that your name is Keter Betts and that my cousin says you are good looking."
"Well, I'm a bass player," he said. "The bass isn't a solo instrument, and I don't know the first thing about playing for kids. I play in night clubs."
"You've got a kid, don't you?"
"Yes, five of them."
"Then you know about kids. And you know, there are an awful lot of kids in the schools in the north part of the county who have never seen a live musician. How about trying it just once or twice?"
"I don't see how we could work that out. I travel a lot, and I'm working almost every night. And we'd have to make some kind of special arrangement with the union."
"You work at night," my mother said. "This would be daytime, in the schools. You think about it, and I'll see what I can do about the union. But let me tell you more about these poor kids way out in the country...."
My mother was never good at taking "no" for an answer. It didn't take her long to get on the phone with the head of the musicians' union local, all excited about the wonderful thing Keter Betts was going to do for the kids in the schools, and what could the union do to make it work?
The union local came through, promising some money from a musicians' trust fund to make at least the first couple of sessions possible. My mother found a school near enough to be convenient for Keter, Washington Grove Elementary. Its principal, Gerri Meltz, was willing to set up a trial run.
Keter came into a room full of kindergartners and opened the case containing his bass. "Do you know what this is?" he asked.
"Yes," one of the 5-year-olds replied wide-eyed, "A really big gee-tar."
Keter took out the bow. "And do you know what this string is made of?"
None of the guesses included horsehair, and when Keter said horsehair there were moans of distress. He had to explain he hadn't killed the horse, that the horse had just needed a haircut, and that the horse's tail was so big he wouldn't miss a few hairs.
By the time Keter struck up "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on the bass, the children were practically climbing into his lap. And soon he was doing jazz versions, blues versions, other children's songs, and the kids were singing along. It was a spectacular success.
The principal spread the word and other schools started inviting him. When he discovered he had appearances scheduled in 17 schools, the musicians' union said it was time for the schools to start seriously looking for money to be able to pay him properly.
Much later, my mother was visiting Amsterdam. She got into a conversation with someone who happened to ask if she knew any American musicians.
"No," she said, and then, "Oh, come to think of it, I do know one man, in Silver Spring, Maryland."
"What's his name?" she was asked.
"Wow," said the man she was talking with, "he's famous! He's the bass player who plays with Ella Fitzgerald."
Until that point my mother had had no idea of Keter's affiliation or reputation. And this made a big difference in her career, too - because after that discovery, she never again hesitated to ask people to help even if they seemed too busy or important.
Keter went on playing for children in school systems throughout the Washington, D.C., area, doing as many as 100 performances a year in the schools. Then he worked with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts to start a program to bring preschool children in Head Start to special performances at Wolf Trap.
Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996. Keter Betts still plays professionally all over the world, does recordings, performs at nightclubs and on cruise ships, and has a major international reputation.
But during the fall and spring, at Wolf Trap in northern Virginia, he performs for groups of young children several times a week - a total of 25 or 30 times a year. He has performed for children so often that he says it adds up to a whole new career.