Victor Ntoni. File photo: Dumisani Sibeko

THE music industry has been robbed of yet another jazz legend with the death yesterday of bassist, composer, singer and arranger Victor Ntoni.

He died from a heart attack in Helen Joseph Hospital in Joburg. He was 65.

His ex-wife, Linda Ntoni, said Ntoni was admitted to hospital on Thursday with a persistent cough. “It was found that he had fluid in his lungs,” she said.

Ntoni stayed on in hospital for further observation and tests. He collapsed yesterday morning.

“They tried to resuscitate him for 45 minutes, but he had had a heart attack, most probably aggravated from the condition,” said Linda.

She said the family had gone to see him on Sunday and he was fine – “laughing and smiling”.

Ntoni’s life in music spanned more than 40 years.

His first instrument was his voice. He was a young man when he joined the Dollar Brand Trio, picked up for his irresistibly vibrant solo performances as a teenager.

He spent many musical hours in the company of migrant workers who lived in camps close to his childhood home in Langa, Cape Town.

The traditional sounds he experienced there taught him the diversity of harmonies, and created a love of the big-band sound he would later bring to life in his own music.

Ntoni first learnt how to play bass in his twenties after teaching himself the guitar, and only because the bassist in his band didn’t show up for a gig. But it took several more years, until 1976, for him to get formal training at the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston.

The beloved bassist was long involved in music tuition, particularly for deprived black musicians during the apartheid era. He extended the memory of South Africa’s great jazz stars, like Kippie Moeketsi, Todd Matshikiza and Winston Ngozi, in his own music.

Linda said she would most remember Ntoni by his music.

“The man 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.

Fellow musician Khaya Mahlangu said Ntoni was his mentor, and they worked together on SABC projects.

“It’s a great loss because South Africa doesn’t really celebrate people like these. We know about them but we never see their accolades or acknowledgements,” he said.

Ntoni worked with a broad range of young and old musicians, including Hugh Masekela, Abigail Khubeka and DJ Black Coffee. Black Coffee worked with the elderly jazzman, plucking Ntoni’s hit Usizi out of the past for a fresh take in 2011. The revival of the song renewed attention on the slight, bespectacled bassist.

Ntoni was honoured at Artscape in a tribute concert in 2011.

He scored and arranged the music in the book The South African Songbook – SA Folklore Music funded by the National Heritage Council last October.

He is survived by six children and several grandchildren.