Obituary: Leroy Vinnegar

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The Independent Culture
LEROY VINNEGAR performed on two of the best-selling jazz albums ever made. But, like many supportive double-bassists, he was the most easily overlooked player of the respective groups.

In 1956 he belonged to the trio Shelly Manne and His Friends (the third member being Andre Previn, in one of his then-frequent outings as an improvising pianist) when they recorded what were described as Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from My Fair Lady. This revived the dormant practice of jazzmen using recent Broadway tunes and became so successful that numerous albums of similar material were made.

Thirteen years later, he was a member of another trio, led by the pianist and vocalist Les McCann, which was augmented by the saxophonist Eddie Harris and the trumpeter Benny Bailey for an unrehearsed Montreux Festival concert. Jointly credited to McCann and Harris, the resultant recording Swiss Movement was a high-point of the soul-influenced style that enjoyed a recent revival as acid-jazz. Because of the soul input, the function of the bass had changed considerably: a BBC producer who was at the festival called it a terrible waste of talent to hear Vinnegar repeating the same phrase for 10 minutes at a time.

A self-taught musician, Vinnegar experimented with the piano before discovering his metier as a teenager. The thriving jazz scene of his native Indianapolis had already given the world the trombonist J.J. Johnson, and was soon to yield the pianist Carl Perkins (not to be confused with the rockabilly guitarist), further trombonists in David Baker and Slide Hampton, and the guitarist Wes Montgomery. Vinnegar played with them all while learning his instrument, and claimed that he initially stuck to the lower register because it was harder to pitch the high notes. His approach was welcomed by his colleagues. "So I stuck to playing that way," he said, in a rare interview.

He turned professional at 20, and worked from 1952 in Chicago, where a stint at the Beehive Club enabled him to play with Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. Moving in 1954 to join his former schoolmate Carl Perkins in Los Angeles, he soon appeared or recorded with Barney Kessel, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Benny Carter, Sonny Rollins and Shelly Manne, in whose group he was a regular for 18 months. Probably thanks to Manne, he was one of the players on the soundtrack of Billy Wilder's 1959 film Some Like It Hot, and was seen on-camera in the unrelated (and dire) Some Call It Loving (1973).

A modest, down-to-earth personality, Vinnegar was, according to David Baker, "very serious about his music but also just grateful to be alive". As an instance of the loyalty Vinnegar inspired in others, Baker cites the reaction of the white trumpeter Lee Katzman when, in the late 1950s, the bassist had a white girlfriend. "One time he was challenged about this while attempting to enter a restaurant, despite the fact that Leroy was 6ft 5in and weighed about 250lb. But immediately Lee Katzman, who's about 5ft 4in, was in this guy's face, saying `Don't you threaten my friend!' "

Vinnegar's arrival in Los Angeles coincided with the waning of what had been publicised as the typical West Coast style. Increasingly effete echoes of Miles Davis's late-1940s band were already being replaced by more vital strains of jazz. Vinnegar's propulsive approach provided a lithe and compelling background for all manner of soloists, and he worked well in conjunction with several drummers including Manne and Frank Butler. His four-to-the- bar progressions, occasionally varied by flicking the open strings between beats, typified the concept of a "walking" bass line and his first album (Leroy Walks!, 1957) consisted of seven tunes with the word "walk" in their titles. Its sequel, however, featured original material including one of his own rare creations, "For Carl", inspired by the prematurely deceased Perkins. On his own albums, he would sometimes step out with direct, melodious pizzicato solos but was content to be a back-seat driver in most situations.

He was also keen to encourage young musicians, as the Los Angeles-born drummer and producer Bill Goodwin (who later made his first recording with Vinnegar) discovered when they became neighbours:

Leroy greeted me with coffee, juice and the biggest reefer you ever saw. He asked if scrambled eggs would suffice, and I allowed as how that would be fine. As I was chewing up the first forkful, I realised that Leroy had drenched my eggs in hot sauce. My mind started to expand, along with steam beginning to come out of my ears and beads of sweat on my brow. Leroy, who was watching me closely, said, "Too hot?" I replied in a croak, "They're perfect".

In the 1960s Vinnegar was one of several bassists co-opted by the Jazz Crusaders, before they became the Crusaders. When the Les McCann era and subsequent fusion-jazz styles limited his outlets, he did more commercial work, including backing the actor George Segal in his banjo-playing persona.

Vinnegar was diagnosed with emphysema and heart disease in the late 1980s and moved to Portland, Oregon to avoid the polluted air of LA. Although obliged to inhale oxygen daily, he made a sufficient recovery to resume regular playing and to perform on several albums in the 1990s; he also visited Europe, performing at the Cork Jazz Festival for his only appearance in the British Isles. His playing then was still the embodiment of the style which made his reputation, a reputation largely confined to fellow professionals. David Baker recalls:

Of all the bass players, when everyone else was up in the cello register and becoming more virtuosic, he was the one. He used to say in that deep bass voice of his, "I think I need to go to New York and tell them how the bass is supposed to sound."

Leroy Vinnegar, bassist: born Indianapolis, Indiana 13 July 1928; died Portland, Oregon 2 August 1999.

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