If there’s such a thing as a “bad boy” of classical music, Nigel Kennedy would fit the ticket. He has translated his classical training into jazz, klezmer, and even rock performances. With his trademark mohawk hairstyle, he sets himself apart from the traditional, stuffy world of classical music.
Kennedy was born in 1956 in Brighton, England. He comes from an extremely musical family: Both his mother and grandmother were pianists, his grandfather was principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and his father was principal cellist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Kennedy, however, didn’t know his father until much later in life. His parents had met while touring together in England, but his father had left for his native Australia before he knew his girlfriend was pregnant.
Kennedy’s first experience with playing music came from playing along to Fats Waller and other jazz songs on the piano. Once he started attending the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music in Surrey, England, he switched to violin. He quickly became a star pupil, and upon graduation, he was admitted to the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with Dorothy DeLay, an incredibly renowned violin teacher, who’s also taught the likes of Sarah Chang, Midori Goto, and many other famous violinists.
While studying in New York, Kennedy was invited to play with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli during his show at Carnegie Hall. Though his teachers at Juilliard warned him that it would detract him from his classical training, he accepted. Of course, their warning would turn out to be baseless. Kennedy continued to study at Juilliard, but also performed with local jazz groups around New York City.
In 1984, he signed with EMI records and released his first album, a recording of Elgar's Violin Concerto. The album received a number of awards, including Grammophone magazine’s Best Record of the Year. Five years later, he recorded Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra. The album was an immediate -- and surprising -- hit. Selling two million copies in only one year, it stayed on top of the UK classical charts for the entirety of 1989. It’s said that the album sold one copy every 30 seconds. The Guinness Book of Records even listed it as the best-selling classical work of all time.
From then on, Kennedy became one of the most sought-after soloists in the world. He toured internationally, and even played privately for the British Royal Family. In 1991, then just 35 years old, he published a biography titled Always Playing. Then, at the peak of his career, Kenney publically announced a withdrawal from public performance.
He did, however, continue to record. He took the hiatus as an opportunity to explore music that truly interested him. In 1993, he covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” as part of the compilation album Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. That same year, he teamed up with Duran Duran bassist Stephen Duffy for the pop album Music in Colours. He didn’t completely abandon classical music, though. He also recorded Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and other classical works during this time.
He returned to public performance in 1997, now simply under the name “Kennedy.” His return resembled the start of his career -- with a recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto.
Since then, Kennedy’s career has better exemplified his preferences for both classical and contemporary music. In 1999, he released The Kennedy Experience, a Jimi Hendrix tribute album featuring improvised covers of Hendrix’s hit song. One year later, he released a similar album for the Doors, called Riders on the Storm: The Doors Concerto. In 2006, he got to revisit his love of jazz and release The Bluenote Sessions, featuring violin renditions of jazz standards.
Kennedy hasn’t entirely abandoned classical music, though. He’s revisited both Elgar and Vivaldi (and other classical composers) many times throughout the 2000s. In 2010, he had a sold-out tour in the UK performing The Four Seasons. His career may best be summarized by one of his most recent projects: Bach Plus Fats Waller, a concept that he toured throughout Asia and led to an album called The Four Elements.
Once called "a Liberace for the Nineties,” Nigel Kennedy is certainly an unconventional, controversial figure in classical music. His talent, however, is evident, both in his training and in his unparalleled repertoire. Kennedy continues to blur the lines between “high” and “low” culture, and continues to find the connections between all types of music. There’s no denying he’s made a huge impact on how the world thinks of classical violinists.