PW: Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life isn't your typical tale of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. What kept your septet so rooted for four years?
WM: The music requires a lot of concentration. Not that cats didn't party, but we would have good times in other ways. We'd be a part of people's lives, go to a lot of people's houses, teach a lot of students, do a lot of things that didn't involve self-indulgence—not that there wasn't self-indulgence.
PW: Your earlier, illustrated book, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, documents the same early '90s period. Why follow up with this?
WM: When we first started in 1990, the concept was that we would do two books; one would be pictures and one would be words. We knew it would be important to document it for posterity and to let those interested know what it was actually like.
PW: How did you hook up with coauthor Carl Vigeland?
WM: I met Carl at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass.—a club I've been playing since I first started on the road. He was a trumpet player. He'd written about the Boston Symphony. We just started discussing music. I liked him and wondered if he'd be interested in writing a book on us.
PW: Tell me about the collaborative process.
WM: Carl organized the entire book—the form, the structure of it. He'd write something, like what I might say, so I could know what type of sentiment would go in that place. Then there would be a dialogue with my voice and his—kind of like what jazz musicians do when they play a standard, like George Gershwin's "Embraceable You." When you play that, you have the tune he wrote and then you improvise around it, but the basic structure and the form is provided by Gershwin. There's never been a book like this written about jazz. The closest would be Alan Lomax's Mister Jelly Roll, where Lomax interviewed Mr. Jelly Roll Morton, then Lomax talked in between. But with Jazz, Carl and I are going back and forth describing cities and places and people—it's kind of a modern guide to being on the road for a jazz musician.
PW: You contributed greatly to the massive Ken Burns jazz book and film project; what's your response to critics who've said it took an overly conservative look at jazz?
WM: I think it's a great compliment when those who are responsible for holding the music down get mad. There's no greater compliment than to anger a mass of critics. All the greatest artists always did it.
PW: Do you think you'll anger them with this book?
WM: Oh, you never know. That's one thing I've learned in these 20 years—you can't predict what they'll find. If you look for something negative, you'll find it. And if you don't find it, you can always make something up. I love the form of criticism that says, "it's not...." I'll ask my students what they think about a trumpet player who can play, and they'll say, "well, he can play, but he can't...." I say, "Well, people aren't known for what they can't do."
PW: What do you miss about traveling with the septet?
WM: Most of us are still on the road together, but now we're with the big band. It's less intimate. But you do get to hear more people play, hear more "voices"; it's like a banquet. There's something to be said for a small, good, compact meal, but there's something to be said for a good banquet too.