In search of an on-air nickname, Malvin Massey Jr., a former U.S. Air Force veteran, settled upon “The Pilot” – a moniker ideally suited for a jazz-loving man on a mission.
A longtime radio host and general manager on WUMR/The Jazz Lover, Massey, who died Oct. 29, piloted the University of Memphis radio station into an influential jazz outlet with national appeal. He called his regular listeners “frequent flyers.”
His story is film quality and it has become just that. “The Pilot: A Tribute to Malvin Massey Jr.,” a 30-minute film, debuted on WKNO on April 28.
“Malvin put his heart and soul into that station,” said Chuck O’Bannon, the film’s director and producer. “WUMR became one of eight premiere jazz formats in the country. …
“I wanted to honor Malvin for his great contributions, not only to the station but also to students aspiring to become radio personalities.”
O’Bannon’s creative credits include “United Front: The People’s Convention 1991 Memphis,” which was selected for television broadcast at Black International Cinema 2022 in Berlin, Germany.
For his latest work, there was no watch party to celebrate another compelling, triumphant screening.
“I watched it alone,” said O’Bannon. “There was no way I could have done a watch party or anything like that. It was very emotional for me. I broke down. Malvin was not only a beloved colleague but a cherished friend.”
O’Bannon is the director of video production at KUDZUKIAN, an independently-owned branded audio and visual content producer based in Memphis.
“KUDZUKIAN played such a critical part in making this documentary a reality,” said O’Bannon. “I don’t know what I would have done without the help of CEO Larry Robinson’s participation.”
Massey co-hosted the “Riffin on Jazz” podcast, along with O’Bannon and Howard Robertson, on the KUDZUKIAN platform, where he also co-hosted “Blues in the Basement” with Cookie B.
“Malvin was more than a co-worker to us,” said Robinson. “We considered him family. This (Massey’s death) was a huge loss for us, the music community, and of course for his wife, Phyllis, and their family.
“People should know his name, at least, if not his contributions to jazz around the world.”
Massey started his radio career as a volunteer. He worked in every position at the station, carving out a place of leadership and advocacy because of his endless knowledge of all things jazz.
A generation of students learned the art of mastering live radio under Massey’s tutelage. The easy-listening, jazz format was the vehicle by which Massey nurtured aspiring announcers, who lived their dreams on air as bonafide “disc jockeys” and radio personalities.
In 2009, Massey became the station’s only full-time employee. A respected figure in the jazz genre, he filled a high demand at jazz conferences for his knowledge and expertise.
Massey called on O’Bannon in 2018 when a vacancy developed to host a live radio show.
“You know, I had never done live radio,” said O’Bannon. “I had been in television for 38 years, but everything I had ever done was edited. So, I was a bit nervous about accepting the job.”
O’Bannon was slotted into one of the station’s most advantageous spots. Every Sunday, Massey hosted his popular show – “Images of Jazz” from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., just ahead of O’Bannon’s “Chuck’s Place.”
“My show didn’t come on until 2, but I would always come to the station at noon to spend time with Malvin,” said O’Bannon.
“Malvin was loved and respected by jazz musicians, colleagues, and listeners; by just everybody. … “Award-winning recording artist Kirk Whalum, way back in the ’80s when he was kicking off his professional career, always knew his music would be played on WUMR. Malvin would always promote budding artists.”
“The Pilot” features tributes from a wide range of Memphians. There are offerings from Whalum and protégés such as Jae Henderson, Anniece Robinson and WYXR’s Shelby McCall that Massey trained and inspired.
The documentary celebrates Massey’s life, his journey from WUMR to KUDZUKIAN, his unwavering passion for jazz, and how he changed the lives of others.
“I wasn’t just making another film,” said O’Bannon. “I want to make sure Malvin gets the recognition and accolades he deserves. I am working to see him get a Music Hall of Fame induction here in Memphis, and a note on Beale Street. His life and work certainly make him worthy of such honor. And I won’t stop until it happens.”
Still grieving, O’Bannon said the documentary was “one of the hardest projects I have ever had to do. I had to step away at times because it was just too sad.
“But I was determined to complete it; to do it for Malvin. We must never forget his priceless contributions.”
Click on the photo to view “The Pilot” trailer.