“The Walker is back,” laughs legendary jazz bassist Leroy Vinnegar. “The Walker’s been quiet for a while, but the Walker’s back.” It’s been 16 years since the release of Vinnegar’s last recording as a leader, Glass of Water, for Legends Records. But Walkin’ the Basses, which returns the 65-year-old veteran to Contemporary, the label of his 1957 debut as a leader, finds Vinnegar at yet another peak of prowess and originality.
Moreover, the master of the modern “walking” style of upright bass has been infused with fresh enthusiasm. “I haven’t done anything as a leader for so long,” he explains, “because I just got bored with recording. The market didn’t look like it was taking bebop anymore, so I laid away for a while. Then, all at once the market seemed to turn around. It woke me up.”
Long a mainstay of the Southern California jazz scene, Vinnegar has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past seven years, and he has cultivated a new zeal for playing in that city’s tight and appreciative circle of like-minded musicians. “I had this new group that I was playing with here in Portland, and it gave me inspiration. The guys on the record all live here in Oregon,” he says of pianist Geoff Lee, drummer Mel Brown, and percussionist Curtis Craft, “and playing with them turned me around to record under my own name again.”
Vinnegar was born into a musically inclined family in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 13, 1928. His earliest musical education came from the radio, on which he listened religiously to the great bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. His two sisters played piano, and young Leroy thought that might be his instrument as well. “I tried my hand at piano,” he says, “and I would have been a nice piano player, had I stayed with it.” Things changed when he actually started playing with others, however. “The bass player used to leave his instrument at the house after we’d rehearse,” Vinnegar remembers, “and I just started messing with it, and the next thing you know I was playing the bass. We just got a communication going.”
When he was about 24, Vinnegar considered pursuing his muse on a grander scale. “I was getting ready to make my push,” he recalls. “I knew I had to get out of Indianapolis, so I could get my music career started. There were good musicians in Indianapolis, but I wanted to move up the ladder, so I figured I’d move to Chicago and tune up, and then I would go to New York.” That was 1952, and Vinnegar was shocked to discover that the Windy City was something far more challenging than a momentary stopover. “Little did I know Chicago was just as fast as New York,” he recollects with another hearty laugh. “I thought I would just go there and get ready for the big one. Little did I know I was walking into a lion’s den. They were there waiting for my ass.”
Vinnegar found himself to be “the tenth bass player on the totem pole” in a hierarchy of jazz bassists topped by Israel Crosby and Wilbur Ware. “When you’re new, you just have to wait your turn,” he says. But Vinnegar’s turn was not long in coming. “All the bass players were busy one week,” he remembers, “and somebody said, ‘Hey there’s a new bass player in town by the name of Leroy Vinnegar.’ ‘Well, how does he play, man?’ ‘They say he can play, you know?’ ‘Well, we ain’t heard him.’ ‘Let’s try him and see. There ain’t nobody else here we can get.’”
Soon, Vinnegar was playing in a band with Chicago’s great native tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, and then, with a brotherly boost from Israel Crosby, in the house rhythm section at the famous Bee Hive. There, he had the chance to work with Lester Young, Ben Webster, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Stitt, and others. “It’s hard to pinpoint a single influence,” Vinnegar says, “because everyone I played with or made a record with was such an influence on my career. But I think Art Tatum topped ’em all. He gave me such a nice compliment by wanting me to join his trio. I figured if Art Tatum asked me to join his trio, I must be doing something right.”
It was while playing with Bill Russo at the Blue Note, opposite Tatum, that Vinnegar was heard by the great pianist. “He heard me and wanted me to move to Los Angeles to join his trio,” the bassist recalls. “I was going to move anywhere.”
Shortly after he arrived in Southern California in 1954, Vinnegar insinuated himself indelibly into that scene. “They say it was much better in the ’40s, but for me, everything was happening,” he says, citing the L.A. presence of Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Conte Candoli, Teddy Edwards, Frank Morgan, Hampton Hawes, Carl Perkins, Shorty Rogers, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Bud Powell, and many more. Ensconced again in a house rhythm section, this time at Jazz City, Vinnegar played regularly with pianists Kenny Drew, Carl Perkins, and Hampton Hawes, and drummers Lawrence Marable, Frank Butler, and for a while, Philly Joe Jones. He recorded with virtually everyone on the scene, formed a band with saxophonist Teddy Edwards, drummer Billy Higgins, and pianist Joe Castro, toured with Shelly Manne, and helped Les McCann put together his pioneering trio in 1960.
By then, at the urging of Contemporary’s Les Koenig, Vinnegar had already recorded his first albums as a leader—Leroy Walks!, in 1957, followed by Leroy Walks Again! “I was real nervous, wondering what I could do,” Vinnegar remembers. “Les said he wanted me to do songs that had the word ‘walk’ in them. That made it a little easier.”
The “walk,” of course, referred to the inimitably sturdy “walking” style that Vinnegar had perfected, a style he says came to him “because I couldn’t solo. I didn’t know the bass well enough, because I’d never studied it,” he elaborates. “I was just going by ear. I didn’t know the positions or the sound of the fiddle so whenever it got to me, I couldn’t solo and I just stayed right with the walking. It was a safe thing at the beginning, a sure shot, then it started developing into something. I found I had a lot of imagination for the walking bass.” That imagination had been fueled by singing bass in gospel choirs as a youngster, and it became invaluable for both Vinnegar and the musicians around him. “It gave other players a cushion to work off and it sort of woke up the bass players, too,” he says. “It gave people an understanding of what the bass could really do beyond going one, two, three, four.” Today, that understanding is as widespread as the respect that Vinnegar has garnered as the walking master.
Except for occasional recording sessions (such as Teddy Edwards’s breakthrough Mississippi Lad), festival appearances, and European tours, Vinnegar is content to play his regular gigs in Portland. “I’d been coming up to Oregon since 1973 and I fell in love with it,” he says. “Then I met some nice musicians up here and we started creating something, so I said I’ll stay right here. And I’m glad I did, because people up here accept real jazz.” And that’s what Vinnegar plays, with all the honesty and determination that “the Walker” has always embodied.
Leroy Vinnegar died August 3, 1999.