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Biography

Leroy VennegarLeroy Vinnegar was known as the "Master of the Walking Bass" and rightfully so. His resume reads like a "Who's-Who" of American Jazz. His work can be heard on over 600 recordings made between 1952 and until his untimely passing in August of 1999.

Leroy was born on July 13th, 1928 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He played around with piano as a child, but was instantaneously converted to the acoustic double bass on his first acquaintance with the instrument, realizing "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, playing with Wes and Monk Mongomery.

Leroy 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, where he immediately made an impact on the local music scene, then in the middle of the "cool jazz" boom. 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.

Leroy Vinnegar

Vinnegar’s 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.


Leroy made his own debut as a leader for Contemporary in 1957, with an album inevitably entitled Leroy Walks, followed by Leroy Walks Again in 1963. 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.

Leroy Vinnegar

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 additional albums as a leader, including Walkin' The Basses (1992) and Integrity (1995).

Vinnegar was not only a seminal figure in the history of jazz and an influence on generations of musicians, but he was also a mentor, educator, and unflagging contributor to the musical life of his adopted community. 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. Leroy Vinnegar died on August 2nd 1999 in Portland, Oregon. In 2002, in honor of his legacy, and the important role that jazz continues to play in the cultural life of the Pacific Northwest, Portland State University established The Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute.