Wynton Marsalis is already the most renowned jazz musician of his generation. Now, he's trying out a new musical style: mixing classical with the blues. On Nov. 19, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will premier Blues Symphony, Marsalis' first work composed exclusively for orchestra. It celebrates the blues through moments in American history and, in Marsalis' words, "incorporates the call-and-responses, train whistles, stomp-down grooves, big-city complexities and down-home idiosyncrasies of Afro-American and American music." Ahead of the symphony's premiere, the jazz master spoke with TIME about working with an orchestra, the significance of the blues and why he finds rap music repellent.
Why did you want to celebrate the blues?
Because the blues is the basis of most American music in the 20th century. It's a 12-bar form that's played by jazz, bluegrass and country musicians. It has a rhythmic vocabulary that's been used by rock 'n' roll. It's related to spirituals, and even the American fiddle tradition.
Do you worry that young people are neglecting the blues?
No. I think that the blues is in everything so it's not possible to neglect it. You hear somebody go "Ooh ooh oooh" and that's the blues. You hear a rock-'n'-roll song. That's the blues. Somebody playing a guitar solo? They're playing the blues. It's more popular than it was because the blues is in everything.
Did you find it challenging to compose for an orchestra instead of a jazz band?
Yes. The most difficult thing is that we play two different languages. It's really difficult to orchestrate and to know what will get what effect out of the orchestra. I'm continuing to work on it because I'm a great fan of classical music. I've played a lot of it. I grew up listening to it. But that's very different from writing it.
Will people be able to identify the influence of the blues and jazz on the symphony?
I'm not a person who writes really abstract things with oblique references. I look at abstraction like I look at condiments. Give me some Tabasco sauce, some ketchup, some mayonnaise. I love all of that. Put it on a trumpet. I've just got to have the ketchup and Tabasco sauce. That's my attitude about musical philosophy.
What does the blues mean for you emotionally?
Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance. It's about a man and a woman. So the pain and the struggle in the blues is that universal pain that comes from having your heart broken. Most blues songs are not about social statements. It's about "My baby left me."
Pop artists like that theme, too. Do you listen to pop music?
I don't listen to any music that has a backbeat on it. If I hear a drum going boom boom bap, boom boom bap, I don't listen to it. Never.
Because there is so much music to listen to. It's not possible to listen to everything. I like music that has development and I like music in which the rhythm evolves. If the rhythm section is playing but the rhythm isn't evolving I become disinterested.
You've described rap music as the "repetition of the minstrel show." What do you mean by that?
Look at it yourself. Put on a video. If you look at it, you can tell me what it means.
Can you elaborate?
It's cut a destructive path through everything that we see. But people lack the courage to call it what it is. You look at Lil Wayne standing up dancing on the BET Awards with his daughter on the stage singing "I wanna f___ every girl in the world." You look at it and tell me what you think about it.
Your dad was a jazz musician. Did he let you listen to your music or was it all jazz all the time?
He was far too hip to be trying to tell you to turn some bulls___ off. As a matter of fact, my father was the one who encouraged me to play in the funk band I played in. I said, "Man, I don't know if I want to play in this loud, all-night band." And he said, "Man, play in the band. You'll have a good time."
Did you consider your father old-fashioned for playing jazz?
My father was so much hipper than anybody I ever met. He could come on the bandstand and wipe us up. I never reduced my father to any social cliché.
Is it fair to describe the blues as an African-American musical genre?
That's fair. But being Afro-American doesn't mean the blues isn't Anglo-American, too. People become confused and think being Afro-American means you exclude Anglo-Americans. Afro-American is a culture that includes people of all kinds of skin colors. It is a cultural disposition. So, yes, the blues is Afro-American music. But all races play it.
Does the blues target African Americans?
No. I don't think it targets any group. Like all art, it targets people. [Richard] Wagner wrote for Germans, but his music was universal. The blues speaks to the experience of the Afro-American people but it's not excluding anybody by doing that.