Throughout his career, Nigel Kennedy has had run-ins with what he calls the “self-appointed wielders of power”. The latest came last week, when he pulled out of a gig at the Royal Albert Hall two days before showtime, accusing organisers Classic FM of preventing him performing a Jimi Hendrix tribute, which they deemed “unsuitable for our audience”.
“This is musical segregation,” he said as the news broke. “If it was applied to people, it would be illegal. If that type of mentality is rampant in the arts, then we still haven’t fixed the problem of prejudice. This is much more serious than my feathers being a bit ruffled. Prejudice in music is completely dreadful. They’re effectively saying that Hendrix is all right in the Marquee Club, but not in the Albert Hall.”
When I phone him a few days later at his home in the Polish mountains, the violinist is in good humour, but unrepentant. As Kennedy tells it, he was never thrilled by the station he calls Jurassic FM’s preference that he perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the recording which gave him the world’s biggest-selling classical album on its release in 1989, comparing the request to asking Deep Purple to do Smoke on the Water.
“I was very lucky to have found a piece of repertoire which struck a chord with people,” he admits, “but it’s not a giant step for mankind for Nigel Kennedy to do that again.” Thus, as a compromise, he agreed to perform Four Seasons, with Chineke!, an orchestra of young black and ethnically diverse musicians, if he could also do Hendrix’s Little Wing in the style of pastoral composer Vaughan Williams.
“But there’s been one obstruction after another,” he sighs. “No rehearsals, then having to work with a conductor when it doesn’t require one and I’ve never done it with one.” Kennedy argues that as his Four Seasons predated other classical commercial blockbusters and Classic FM – that he found their audience for them. “So it’s ironic that they’re now telling me what’s suitable for their audience.”
Kennedy says his participation actually halted three weeks ago, but this wasn’t announced until much later – presumably amid behind-the-scenes panic. “So it looks like the spoilt artist walking out. But I’m standing up for the noise-makers,” he says. “If we down tools then what are the people behind the desks going to be dealing in? Fish fingers?” He emits one of the mighty cackles that pepper our 75-minute conversation. “Not that I’d mind. I love fish fingers.”
Classic FM have refused to comment and Chineke! – who had previously mixed genres with collaborations with Carl Craig and Stormzy, but were presumably alarmed at being caught in a ruckus between two big beasts – have said the content was Classic FM’s decision. Again, Kennedy blames “people behind desks”.
“It’s not the young players. If we were in a room together we’d get on like a house on fire. I was prepared to rehearse a week with them, unpaid, give them the benefit of my experience and I would learn from them in terms of creating beautiful music.” He’s saddened that the public won’t get to hear it. “I actually thought of busking and playing Little Wing outside the Royal Albert Hall, if they won’t let me play it inside! But then some uniform will probably move me on and say ‘Have you got a licence?’”
Kennedy first interpreted Hendrix (a version of Fire) for the 1993 tribute album Stone Free (featuring the likes of the Cure and Eric Clapton) and in 1999 he released The Kennedy Experience, an album of classical explorations of Purple Haze et al.
“Hendrix should be talked about like the great composers, man,” he says. “Beethoven. Bach. Duke Ellington. Stravinsky. Jimi is in that line. Serious motherfuckers!” Not Vivaldi?
“Not so much. Vivaldi is like … not quite Des O’ Connor but it’s lighter shit that people can listen to while they’re drinking their coffee.” Ouch. He’s laughing like a drain.
Kennedy argues that for all Hendrix’s “mind-blowing” guitar-playing, his genius extends to composition. “The songs he wrote and forms he took were very different … more free-flowing structure, loosening of the edges. A groundbreaker.” Kennedy’s violin case contains a grainy photo of Hendrix playing one, which the late star had apparently picked up in the BBC’s Maida Vale studios during a lunch break, much to the chagrin of its owner. “From interviews towards the end of his life he was becoming interested in the sonic possibilities orchestras offered him,” Kennedy explains, claiming that with his own violin, he can take his hero’s music somewhere else. “Kind of folk trance symphonic … I’m starting to sound like that fucker from Spinal Tap. ‘It’s a bit Mozart and a bit Bach and I’m going to call it Mach.’”
He’s cackling, but the Classic FM ruckus cuts to the core of a near-lifelong belief that dividing music into unmixable genres is “a really puerile mentality”.
Brighton-born Kennedy, a world class virtuoso violinist, was just six when his music teacher mother sent him to audition at what he jokingly calls “Yehudi Menuhin’s school of precocious brats” in Surrey, but he could have become a rocker. “I played piano, so I could have easily gone down that Deep Purple/Santana route. It just happened that the first gigs I was offered were in classical. I felt very lucky to be offered anything. It was never on a plate for anybody. It felt like winning the lottery.”
Kennedy later studied at New York’s Juilliard School, part-funded by busking. He was 16 when Stéphane Grappelli invited him on stage at Carnegie Hall, but his teachers told him that playing jazz would damage a classical career, so he initially refused. “Then I realised that here was this teenage precious brat telling one of the greatest violin players ever that it would be bad for me to play with him. So I got through half a bottle of Scotch, tumbled on stage and it was one of the most memorable times of my life.” Later, a record company executive said this made Kennedy “the wrong person to play Mozart”.
Not all his experiments have worked. As a young man, he attempted Indian music, playing before an Indian audience in Westminster Hall. “We reached a point in the raga where it doubled time and I just couldn’t remember the next bit,” he chuckles. “So we were playing on and on. People were walking out, and not walking back in!” He’s since played with everyone from Kate Bush to the Who and listens to everything from Led Zeppelin to the Fall.
In the 90s, he took up with theFall’s (and the Adult Net’s) singer and lead guitarist Brix Smith, after her divorce from Mark E Smith. “We never met, but there was this antagonism between me and Mark,” he remembers, “Then he sent me a letter saying ‘Thanks Nige, you saved me a lot of money’. But Brixie was a great person to be with and I learned a lot from her. She’d spent a lot of time with Mark and really understood the art of songwriting.”
In Smith’s memoir, The Rise, the Fall and the Rise, she details Kennedy’s riotous behaviour, such as freewheeling cars down hills, but notes his hours of daily practice and observes: “I realised that his level of perfectionism was so intense and rigid that he had no room for any other restrictions in his life.” Kennedy admits this is a “completely correct” reading of his psyche, which explains his many spats. “I’m not Keith Moon,” he insists, “blowing up toilets in hotels, but I don’t like much restraint. Compared with most violinists I reckon I’m a risk, but you’ve got to try stuff or else you haven’t lived.”
Now 64, Kennedy’s big regrets are that he didn’t broaden from classical music sooner (it now makes up “about 30%” of his output) and that he didn’t take up an offer to join Duke Ellington’s band when he was 14. “It would have made me a better musician, but my parents and tutor-benefactors didn’t want to see me surrounded by loads of old codgers with brown paper bags with special bottles in them on a tour bus. Maybe if I’d been a more strident 14-year-old and thrown chairs around I’d have been allowed, but maybe if I’d been in that band I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”
When he was 19, Kennedy took up boxing in the Bronx. After “shitting blood” after the gym bouts he soon realised he was “averse to being hit”, but it triggered a lifelong admiration of the sport. Thus, the cover of his forthcoming memoir, Uncensored – “a dissection of the BBC, record companies, conductors, run-ins with police and all kinds of not exactly positive shit” – depicts him wearing boxing gloves.
“I’m quite combative,” he laughs. “I’ve never minded saying what I think.”
Nigel Kennedy’s memoir and three CD box set, both titled Uncensored, are released on 4 November on Fonthill Media and Warner Classics respectively.