Victor Ntoni, legendary jazz bassist, composer and arranger, died in a Johannesburg hospital on Monday 28 January 2013. He was 65. It is all the more poignant since this self-effacing gentleman of jazz was finally stepping into the spotlight he so richly deserved, and was scheduled to perform at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in April, where he was to reprise his ’90s experimental jazz excursions with long-standing local collaborators, keyboardist and composer Hilton Schilder and saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu.
This article by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of Sunday 3 February 2013.
Mahlangu described Ntoni as a mentor and said it was a great loss to South African music because the country does not sufficiently celebrate the musicians who contribute to South African culture.
Ntoni’s ex-wife, Linda, said he had been admitted to Johannesburg Hospital with a persistent cough on Thursday 24 January, but had collapsed after a heart attack on Monday. Attempts to resuscitate him had failed.
“He was a brilliant musician and arranger but he didn’t have the opportunity to explore his music as much as he wanted to, and that was a little frustrating,” she said.
Ntoni was born in Langa in 1947, learning music from his mother, a locally recognised singer and his uncle, an aspirant piano player. He first learned voice and guitar, before settling on the bass as his chosen instrument. He described his compositions as being “”musical offerings that reflect the love, the pain, the South African culture that embraces us all” and his early influences as “the local ghetto culture – street corner vocal groups, social functions and local big bands that could read Count Basie charts and their own marabi compositions.”
As a self-taught musician, his first official group was the Uptown Sextet and he later gained international experience touring with Joan Brickhill-Burke and Louis Burke’s production of the musical “Meropa” as musical director. In 1975 they performed a Royal Command Performace for Queen Elizabeth. Shortly thereafter, French composer and conductor Maurice Jarre engaged Ntoni to record music for the Lee Marvin film “Shout At The Devil”.
When internationally acclaimed bandleader Dave Brubeck toured South Africa in 1976 and his black bassist was denied entry to the country, Ntoni was selected to play with the group. Assistance by Brubeck, and an introduction by Jarre, led to Ntoni enroling at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. Later, in the late 1980s, Ntoni toured the United States, Europe and Thailand with Brubeck’s son, Darius, and their band, Afro-Cool Concept.
Recently, a recording of a 1971 concert at the Cape Town Arts Centre has surfaced, showcasing the talent of the young Ntoni, playing alongside late jazz legend Kippie Moeketsi. This was shortly before they travelled to Johannesburg to record on the early albums of Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand).
Ntoni was as a composer and arranger for the likes of Hugh Masekela – notably, writing “Nomalizo” for the trumpeter, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ringo Madlingozi, Dondo, the South African Freedom Singers and the Victor Ntoni Big Band, amongst many others. He taught at the Mmabana Cultural Centre and was a musical director for productions by the SABC, at Sun City and for the ’80s era Carling Circle of Jazz.
Ntoni worked with Dudu Pukwana, Sibongile Khumalo, Ratau Mike Makhalamele, Ezra Ngcukana, Abigail Khubeka, McCoy Mrubata, Barney Rachabane and many others.
Ntoni has only one solo album, “Heritage”, which was released in 2004, and nominated for a South African Music Award for “Best Contemporary Jazz Album”.
Statements of condolence have poured in from the both jazz and political figures, including the Brubeck family and Ntoni’s many collaborators and students.
President Jacob Zuma said in a statement, “Our music industry has yet again been robbed of an icon that was instrumental in promoting and making jazz music popular in our country.”
Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile, said in a media statement, “We remember Bra Vic as a pioneer whose music will continue to inspire current and future generations… We say akwehlanga lungehlanga. May his music live on.”
He is survived by six children and several grandchildren.
A selected listening discography would include “Heritage” (Sony, 2004), “Dollar Brand + 3 with Kippie Moeketsi” (As-Shams/ The Sun), “Afro-Cool Concept Live in New Orleans 1990” (Melt200 / BW), the unpublished, untitled 1971 Kippie Moeketsi recording and “The South African Songbook – SA Folklore Music” (National Heritage Council, 2012), which he scored and arranged.
Images courtesy of Artscape. This article by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of Sunday 3 February 2013.