Leroy Vinnegar - acoustic double bass (1928 - 1999)
Regarded as the ‘Master of the Walking Bass,’ Leroy Vinnegar was a mainstay on jazz recording sessions from 1952 on where he was on over 600 dates. His signature walking bass was the foundation for his impeccable sense of swing, which has gone on to influence several generations of players.
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.’”