mournful day for jazz
Portland's "walking" bassist who played with other jazz greats dies at
By Marty Hughley of The Oregonian
If there is truth to the popular musical adage "it don't mean a
thing if it ain't got that swing," bassist Leroy Vinnegar surely
a meaningful life. An important figure in the development of jazz
and one of Portland's most revered musicians, Vinnegar died
in Legacy Good Samaritan hospital early Tuesday. He was 71.
Vinnegar had suffered for several years from heart and lung
ailments that curtailed his travel and eventually required him to use
bottled oxygen even during performances. The cause of death
was cardiac arrest, hospital spokesperson Quita Lupfer said.
Those closest to Vinnegar had yet to make funeral or memorial
arrangements Tuesday. But Atwater's Restaurant, where
Vinnegar was most recently a regular attraction, is planning a
tribute concert in mid-August to benefit the Jazz Society of Oregon's
Leroy Vinnegar scholarship fund, said Atwater's manager Stephan
Though Vinnegar had been ill with increasing frequency, he
still could be seen in Portland nightclubs as recently as last
month. On his birthday, July 13, he was at Berbati's Pan in
Old Town, lending the prestige of his presence to a jazz big
band trying to draw a steady audience.
A native of Indianapolis, the self-taught Vinnegar
established his reputation in Los Angeles during the 1950s
and '60s, playing and recording widely with stars such as
Chet Baker and Stan Getz. His trademark was the
rhythmic "walking" bass line, a steady series of ascending
or descending notes, and it brought him the nickname "The
Walker." He moved to Portland in 1986 and soon was
regarded as the center of the city's jazz community. In
1995, the Oregon Legislature honored him by proclaiming
May 1 Leroy Vinnegar Day. He later became the first
inductee of the Oregon jazz society's Hall of Fame.
"He legitimized the Portland jazz scene," veteran drummer
Ron Steen said. "Other cats had moved up here before, but no
one of Leroy's stature." Pianist Gordon Lee called Vinnegar
"the godfather of jazz in Portland," adding that even visiting
international stars such as Wynton Marsalis and Harry
Connick Jr. made a point to catch Vinnegar's club gigs so
they could sit in with the master.
Diane Mitchell, wife of the late bassist Red Mitchell, recalls
how she first learned of Vinnegar. "I was driving with Red
one day, and as we were pulling in the driveway, a song
came on the radio with Leroy playing. My husband
wouldn't let me turn the engine off. He said, 'You have to
listen to this. This is the greatest walking bass player who
ever lived. You have to know Leroy Vinnegar.' "
Mitchell said, "There always was a glow about his presence
when he walked into a room." She noted the regard jazz
aficionados nationwide have for him: "You say you're from
Portland, and everyone will ask, 'How's Leroy?' "
He was an elder statesman, a teacher and a popularizer but
also someone many musicians describe as being like a
father or brother to them.
"He was an example, by the dignity with which he dealt
with his illness," Steen said. "He had that oxygen machine
with him, but he made you feel comfortable. It was the
same old Leroy, just with a tube in his nose."
Making other people feel good, his friends said, was what
Vinnegar was about. "I've never, ever heard him play or
just been in his presence and not felt better," Steen said.
"You could be in the worst mood of your life. You see that
big smile and -- BAM! -- you feel good."
"He was hilarious," Lee added. "And to sit and talk with
him was inspiring, but also intimidating. I mean, he first
moved to L.A. to play with Art Tatum! And I have him
playing on my record."
"He was one of the mainstays of jazz all over the world,"
said Dick Berk, the veteran drummer who played with the
great Billie Holiday and later worked with Vinnegar in
Portland. "All I can do is think about the happiness he
brought to people when he was playing. Every time he
played at Jazz de Opus, the place was packed, and it was
stomping. You could always count on him to be swinging,
and that's what jazz is about.
"Let me put it this way: Jazz equals swing equals Leroy
Oregonian staffer Kyle O'Brien contributed to this
report. You can reach Marty Hughley at 503-221-8383
or by e-mail at email@example.com.