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Leroy Vinegar 
Leroy Vinegar
August 3, 1999
Age 71  
 
Cardiac Arrest 
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 A mournful day for jazz

  Portland's "walking" bassist who played with other jazz greats dies at age 71  

  
               By Marty Hughley of The Oregonian staff  

               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 led 
               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  
               Earnhart.  

               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 
               Vinnegar."  
 

               Oregonian staffer Kyle O'Brien contributed to this 
               report. You can reach Marty Hughley at 503-221-8383 
               or by e-mail at martyhughley@news.oregonian.com. 

Master of the walking bass
Leroy Vinnegar, who helped define West Coast jazz in
the '50s and '60s, was revered by musicians far and wide 

               Bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who moved to Portland 14 years 
               ago, has been called one the most influential jazz musicians 
               ever. He played with all the great jazz giants of the century 
               -- Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Ben 
               Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, 
               Benny Carter, Stan Getz and Wynton Marsalis.  

               His death Tuesday morning, at the age of 71, will leave a 
               great void in a city known as one of the top jazz towns on 
               the West Coast.  

               Known as the master of the walking bass for his solos that 
               scaled the heights and depths of his instrument, Vinnegar 
               has been a jazz inspiration.  

               Before coming to Oregon, Vinnegar helped define West 
               Coast jazz in the 1950s and 1960s as a fixture in the L.A. 
               recording studio scene. For more than four decades, and 
               more than 800 recordings, Vinnegar was the acoustic bass 
               player every band leader wanted to lead his studio rhythm 
               section.  

               When he joined drummer Shelly Manne and pianist Andre 
               Previn to produce a jazz version of "My Fair Lady," it 
               became one of the all-time best-selling jazz recordings. His 
               last one, in 1995, was called "Integrity: The Walker Live at  
               Lairmont," and featured four other Portland jazz musicians.  

               Vinnegar's contribution to jazz on the world stage has been 
               acknowledged many times in books and magazine articles. 
               But his impact on Oregon's music scene has been 
               recognized only recently. Last year, the Jazz Society of 
               Oregon, marking its own 25th anniversary, honored 
               Vinnegar as the first member of its Jazz Hall of Fame.  

               Three years earlier, the Oregon Legislature proclaimed 
               Leroy Vinnegar Day -- May 1, 1995 -- in a special 
               ceremony at the state capitol. That day, Vinnegar received 
               a letter from President Clinton, a lifelong jazz fan, 
               expressing his personal delight on Leroy's "attainment of 
               international recognition as master of the walking bass."  

               In a Portland jazz scene Vinnegar helped build, his walking 
               bass and friendly presence will be missed. 

               Wednesday, August 4, 1999

 
 

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BIOGRAPHY
 
 
All-Music Guide
 
Leroy Vinnegar
 
 Born:  July 13, 1928 in Indianapolis, IN
 
 
The owner of a swinging "walking bass" manner, comfortable in several idioms but not a prolific soloist,  Leroy Vinnegar has had a couple of heydays -- in the '50s and '60s as a busy freelance recording  sideman, and as a member of Les McCann's most popular combo in 1969. As such, he played a major  role in two of jazz's biggest hit albums, the trend-setting My Fair Lady set with Andre Previn and  Shelly Manne (1956) and the Eddie Harris/Les McCann soul-jazz manifesto Swiss Movement.(1969).  

A completely self-taught musician, Vinnegar "fooled around" with the piano but gravitated to the bass upon his first encounter.  After turning pro at 20, he was the house bassist at Chicago's Beehive in 1952-53.  Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1954, Vinnegar quickly settled in as the bass player of choice  on records by Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne and Serge Chaloff, among others.   He also started recording as a leader in 1957, reeling off a pair of albums for Contemporary with the word "walks" appropriately inserted in each title. Starting in 1959, Vinnegar would work and tour frequently with Joe Castro and Teddy Edwards while continuing his freelance activities. In the early  1980s, he appeared on television as a member of the Dixieland- styled Panama Hats behind  actor/banjoist George Segal.  Although a bout of ill health caused him to move to Portland in the late  '80s, Vinnegar remained an active player into the 1990s, and he returned to the recording scene as a  leader in 1992 (on Contemporary again) with a CD entitled -- what else? -- Walkin' the Basses.                  --  Richard S. Ginell, All-Music Guide

 
 
  
 
 

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