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The Great Walker Laid To RestCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Vinnegar, LeroyLeroy Vinnegar became inextricably associated with the jazz method known as walking bass during the heydey of West Coast Jazz in the 1950s, to the point where his name became synonymous with the style. His imperious sense of time and propulsive swing underpinned many of the most famous records of the era, and made him constantly in demand in the recording studios of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s.
He was born in the mid-west, and played around with piano as a child, but was instantaneously converted to the acoustic double bass on his first acquaintance with the instrument, realising "that was for me". He was entirely self-taught, later claiming that he "just picked it up", but he did so well enough to became a professional musician in Indianapolis at the age of 20.
He moved to Chicago in 1952, where he spent a year as the house bass player at the Beehive jazz club, playing with local and visiting artists, including saxophonist Charlie Parker. In 1954, he headed west for Los Angeles, and began to build a considerable reputation among the jazz musicians on the coast for his steady but virile walking patterns.
The walking bass style was a fundamental one in the development of jazz swing, and emerged with the gradual shifting of focus away from the stride piano bass lines of early jazz. The player plays long, flexible lines of quarter notes in steady 4/4 metre, at varying degrees of distance from the underlying harmony of the tune. The style enables the bassist to create a kind of countermelody to the soloist, while simultaneously supporting the harmonic progression and providing a regular pulse.
Vinnegar mastered the style in hugely effective fashion. In Los Angeles, he worked with the great Art Tatum as well as with almost all the major figures associated with the West Coast style, including Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers, Herb Geller, Serge Chaloff, Art Pepper, Harold Land, Russ Freeman and Carl Perkins (the pianist, not the rock and roll singer), with whom he had gone to school in Indianapolis.
His most famous association of the era was with pianist Andre Previn and drummer Shelly Manne on the best-selling album My Fair Lady , a jazz version of tunes from the show released in 1956 on Lester Koenig's influential Contemporary label. As well as becoming a mainstay of the local scene, he also played regularly with visitors to the coast, and recorded with Sonny Rollins in that context on Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders in 1959.
Vinnegar made his own debut as a leader for Contemporary in 1957, with an album inevitably entitled Leroy Walks , followed by the equally unsurprising Leroy Walks Again in 1963. His solo work was proficient but not especially memorable, but both albums assembled excellent groups, and the bassist was able to display his prowess in the element in which it was most effective, driving a band.
Vnnegar enjoyed a fruitful working relationship with saxophonist Teddy Edwards in the early 1960s, commemorated on the classic Teddy's Ready . The bassist freelanced throughout the decade, contributing to commercial as well as jazz projects, and enjoyed another major association when he teamed up with the very successful duo of organist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris in the late-60s, including their big-selling album Swiss Movement in 1969.
He was reunited with Edwards and trumpeter Howard McGhee when they reformed their quintet in the late-70s, and demonstrated his versatility in appearing on television with the Dixieland band The Panama Hats which accompanied actor George Segal.
Partly as a result of failing health, Vinnegar moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1986, where he became a central figure in the local jazz scene. Despite worsening heart and lung ailments which eventually required him to use oxygen even when playing, he continued to work until shortly before his death, and to record occasional albums as a leader, including Walkin' The Basses (1992) and Integrity (1995).
Musicians visiting Portland would seek out his club dates and sit in with the master, and the Oregon Legislature honored his contribution to the cultural life of the state by designating 1 May as Leroy Vinnegar Day. He was installed as the first inductee into the Jazz Society of Oregon's Hall of Fame in 1998.
He died in hospital in Portland from cardiac arrest.