Violinist Kennedy, 41, burst onto the scene at age 19 when he played the Elgar Violin Concerto under his mentor, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, at Royal Albert Hall. It was 44 years earlier that the 16-year-old Menuhin had played it under Sir Edward Elgar's baton on the same stage, and the symbolism of the event didn't escape the notice of the hawk-eyed commentators. Back then, he was Nigel Kennedy - or just "The Nige" - but now he prefers the singular "Kennedy," making him the frequent butt of "artist formerly known as" jokes. He has recorded the major violin concertos of the Romantic repertoire, and his version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons was one of the best selling classical CDs of all time. A fearless technician whose style is as much informed by his love of Miles and Monk as by his classical horse sense, he is best known for cultivating a "bad boy" image with his punky clothes, pineapple hair tuft and earthy language. It isn't just image but the real thing, as exemplified by the voice mail message on his hotel room phone:
Oy! Oy! Hey you mother fuckers. Let's unite and get a mother-fucking world. Cool! Listen, like um, I might not be 'eah on this number. That's why you're hearing my voice, but I'm probably on the cel phone number I've got, which is ----------. Yeah, that's right, man -------------. Cooool. Okay. Just be cooool. Lay-UH. Catch you lay-UH. BAAAH-EE. OY!
In 1992, he announced that he was tired of playing music by "dead guys" and retired from the stage. During the next five years, he studied other instruments, worked on his pet project of composing a suite after songs of Jimi Hendrix, started a family and continued practicing the violin three hours a day. In 1997, he returned to the concert stage with his technique intact and his street persona as defiantly down-to-earth as ever. He is currently touring with an ensemble called the Kennedy Collective playing his Hendrix concerto-suite as well as solo violin sonatas by J.S. Bach and Bela Bartůk.
I talked with Kennedy on October 24, 1998.
DB: We'll print any four-letter word as long as I know how to spell it, so you can just let it all hang out.
K: Okay, cool. Let's go for it.
DB: Also, this Journal's readership is pretty diverse, so probably there are some younger readers who don't remember Hendrix, so there's a little education to do here.
K: Okay, man.
DB: You've got this Hendrix project. Were you listening to Hendrix when he was still alive? When you were a kid? Or did you only come around to him in later life?
K: I came to him a bit later in life, I reckon. I think you know my background is more in classical and jazz, really, as a musician, and I came into Hendrix's music - obviously, you know, he's such a stunning guitar player. He's probably been the most formative guitar player of the century if not ever. I reckon he's been more influential than anybody else. The advances he made on the electric guitar make anybody else's pale into insignificance, I really think.
DB: What about Clapton?
K: Well, I mean, Clapton - I think you just have to stand back admit that Clapton was another species of guitar player four times more evolved when in the old days, they were hangin' out together and Clapton was the main one in England and everything and then suddenly Hendrix came, like, over and wiped the floor over everybody. And I don't think even Clapton would mind anyone saying that because it's just the stark truth, you know? You know, I mean Jimi was never a master of the middle of the road type of element like what Clapton is now. You know, I mean, Clapton's got this fantastic niche where you expect to please everybody because guitar aficionados still appreciate what he does, and the music that he does is very middle of the road. Whereas Jimi was always on the edge - and it's probably 'cause he was right on the edge that he managed to push the guitar to its new limits.
DB: How did you get introduced to Hendrix?
K: Um - Wow! There are other guitar players. I would say that Mark Rebow, for instance, you know, the one that used to play in the Lounge Lizards, or like, McLaughlin, for instance, are pushing the guitar in certain ways.
DB: John McLaughlin?
K: Yeah. Yeah. What really gets interestin' about Jimi as a guitar player and about the really great ones is that they don't confine themselves to preconceived idioms kind of specified by other people. They actually make new music. And so that's where I put people like Santana and McLaughlin and Jimmy Paige, for instance, and Jimi's playing as examples of, like, a superlevel of evolution on guitar playing compared with, like, some of the others that were (end of sentence garbled by jet noise) -
DB: Oh, we've got a jet flying overhead on your end. I couldn't hear the last bit.
K: Yeah, there's some bastard over there taking passengers to an unknown destination.
DB: So what were you saying?
K: So I'm saying that, like, very striking players, they don't stick to an idiom. Any player who sticks within an idiom which is preconceived, I would consider a less important player, but the ones who break down the lines and invent their own new idiom - which is something like Jimmy Paige did with the structural approach that he's got to music, which was equal to that of any jazz concert myth; I think Jimi did it with the whole fucking genre thing because there was no one else making music like that at all. John McLaughlin did it the same way, you know? It was a kind of new genre which he played with Miles for a bit, and then he come out with something like Mahavishnu Orchestra. If one has to trace down the blends, I suppose one can say that he was interested by blues, jazz and Indian music, and he got this whole thing together, which was just a totally new sound.
DB: In putting together this Hendrix suite, and I guess you've been working on it over the years. Maybe it's still a work in progress?
K: Yeah, it really is still. Yeah.
DB: How do you translate those Hendrix sounds, then, to the violin without making it sound like a pale imitation?
K: Well, you know, what I'm doin' actually - I haven't listened to Hendrix for six years now, man.
DB: Oh, really?
K: You know, yeah, because like, what I'm interested in is not - You know, I started out seven or eight years ago doing a kind of power trio thing of electric violin, drums and bass. And it started to discourage me. You know, what's the point in having some motherfucker, like, playin' rather similar to Jimi over drums and bass, which is exactly what Jimi did himself. No one needs that. They've got the albums, you know? And whenever I see people copyin' Hendrix songs, then it's just, like, exactly the same form, exactly the same verse, chorus, whatever it is, and doin' it almost exactly the same. I think 'What's the point?' because however talented those people are who are doin' it, it does sound like a pale imitation, yeah? And so what I've done is first of all - for this concert that we're talkin' about - I've taken it into an acoustic realm which is one which Jimi never worked in. I've got a bit of orchestration, and I've really taken it into the kind of world where the ideas which Jimi kind of limited to being, like, two-and-a-half, three, three-and-a-half minutes, I can extend upon those ideas. And that's why I think Jimi's the perfect guy to do it. I've got away from this whole electric guitar-dominated thing into thinking about the actual songs and what was going in his songs, whether it was some beautiful harmonic progression or whether it's a gift for melodic fragments. I've totally deconstructed the architecture of it and put it together into a new one. So in that respect, I'm not really a Jimi Hendrix worshipper or that sort of thing. I'm not trying to play in an authentic manner. It's really just as much my music as it is his now because I haven't even heard his stuff for six years. It's a matter of chemistry of the band, which I've got playin' it, and wherever you want to take it. In the same way as a great jazz band is gonna sound slightly different if someone like Miles Davis does it than when Coleman Hawkins does it or like if Wynton Marsalis does it, it's gonna sound totally different when a Terry Blanchard does it.
DB: Well, when you're playing, are you improvising in jazz style or are you developing in classical style?
K: Well, I'm developing in classical style while improvising in jazz style. Let's put it that way because, you know, I improvise, but in my way. Just in the same way it's unattractive to me to play like Jimi Hendrix, I also don't want to play like jazz. I'd prefer to develop my own styles in the same way that, I think the license has been extended to me in a gratis manner by Jimi himself in as far as how much respect or lack of it he gave to songs like All Along the Watchtower and Hey, Joe. One was a Bob Dylan song, the other was a country song. And how much do they sound like the originals when he does it? So in that respect, I feel that I've got the same license to play Jimi's music and sound totally unlike Jimi, and I think that quite a few passages which, if you isolate them, what my group is playing, you couldn't actually tell which fucking number it is. Because we're actually taking it as far out as what Jimi did to those songs which weren't by him.
DB: I've seen it described as a concerto, as a suite or as a collection of song arrangements. What's your word on it?
K: Well, it's kind of like - it's going to be a concerto in the end. But I'm getting kind of impressed with the Programming Movement, which is coming out of Bristol at the moment, you know, like I think that's kind of taken over from Seattle's thing, the kind of creative hot bed of music. Seattle used to be like that ten years ago.
DB: You're talking grunge rock?
K: Yeah, that type of thing, and there was just a lot of good music coming out of that city at that point. And I think now, Bristol is like that now - groups like Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size. Roni Size particularly is head and shoulders above most people as far as the refinement of its creativity and the dynamic energy of it at the same time.
DB: What was the second one that you mentioned?
K: Portishead. Or don't you know their music?
DB: Oh, I don't know - I'm not real cool.
K: Ha! Ha! Ha! You are then if you've managed to protect yourself from that shit, you must be alright!
DB: And all that's out of Bristol?
K: Yeah, that's all out of this one town, and there's a lot of cross-fertilization also of these different musicians doing different things.
DB: So sounds like you listen to a lot of contemporary stuff. I mean, you're into ska bands and stuff?
K: Yeah, I like the ska stuff. You know, but what I like about the modern movement is that it's being taken away from the kind of rather predictable song form and the rather ego-centric domination by the singer into a whole imaginative world of orchestration, even though it's on computers and stuff, like, it's an imaginative world of orchestration and combinations of sounds and development in other ways rather than obvious lyrics or politically disaffected lyrics - the normal thing that you expect from contemporary rock musicians. It's gone away from that.
DB: It's about time. This is what you call the Programming Movement?
K: Yeah. I call it that. Some people might call it Techno, but it's - I mean, the movement from Bristol is known as TripHop. You know of hip-hop. This one's called TripHop. In as far as, I guess, the hip-hop is a very energetic form of music, this TripHop thing has got the energy, but it's taking you out there on some mental excursion.
DB: I appreciate your leading me along here (laugh). I'm ignorant in some of this stuff here. Bach and Bartok is more my speed.
K: Oh, cool man. Well, I mean, you know, I'm digressing a bit because this Program stuff is not going to be on the concert. It's gonna be on the final version of this Hendrix Concerto just to give it an extra dynamism. There's gonna be the personal acoustic moments, which are gonna be more representative of what we're doing in the concert that we're talking about. But then on the album that I eventually make, probably this winter, it's involving getting Programmers in a more modern nature like that just to give it the contrast and to pin-point and highlight different moods a little bit more effectively.
DB: Well, let me ask you about this interesting trio you've got. Why put Bartok, Bach and Hendrix together? What's the idea there?
K; Well, I've got some (laughs) radical ideas as to what, like, jazz and the modern music - development of modern music outside the accepted normal classical genre is. And people, particularly in the '70s and '80s, I think they've got over it now, but they used to be saying, "Jazz is the black music. Jazz is this and that, and white people can't play it." Now it's gone well beyond that, and there's no racism in music, really, anymore apart from only one or two extreme forms. But what I say is that because I've grown up during the '70s and '80s, I've thought about it quite a bit, and my proposal on the whole thing is that, like um, without harmony, jazz wouldn't exist, and the whole interest in jazz has been the evolution of the harmony in it. And that harmony is a totally European concept, really. You know, different chords, different combinations of notes making chords and harmonic centers - that's a European thing. And so, therefore, jazz has always been a fantastic blend of European values and African values. You know, it's been a great fucking blend of that. And so in that respect, Bach is on there as being the master of melodic and harmonic development without which none of this other music of the century probably would have happened. So that's why Bach's on this show. And then the rest of it is really juxtaposition between Bartok and Hendrix, who I consider to be two very similar composers in their formation of their music - not in the mood or the feel or the sound of their music, but in how it all came together. Bartok was surrounded by Hungarian folk music - Hungarian and Rumanian border folk music - and he took these elements and put them into amazing, challenging new structures which threw a whole new light on the material that he was usin'. And in the same way, one can say that Jimi was surrounded by blues and rock and R&B and even jazz, and while hearin' those influences in his playing, it's immediately evident that he's not an R&B player, he's not a rock player, he's not a blues player, but he's instinctively taken these elements and made a whole new world and musical structure out of those. So I see there's a lot of parallels to be drawn between these two guys.
K: You know, on the other hand, it's great for a concert program because the contrast of moods and particularly the way that I'm taking the music of Jimi - because Jimi's influences are so far-reaching, it means you can take it in almost any direction in his music - it means that I'm able to maintain a good contrast in the show as well as maintain the similarities between these two guys. So it's a kind of more interesting way to skip from a bit of Bartok to Hendrix, back to Bartok to Hendrix again than just play - struggle through Bartok's Solo Sonata, which we all just have got loads of opportunities to go hear some guy struggle through the Bartok Solo Sonata without stoppin' - you know, and maybe try and shed new light on it by putting it in a context which sheds a fresher light on it.
DB: It sounds like you've got a little bit of winning over of people to do, and I've read a few of the reviews. There's always a bit of condescension when I read people talk about you in the classical world. You must have the feeling that you're surrounded by pompous anal-retentive nerds.
K: Well, only in England.
DB: Only in England?
K: Yeah, man. You know, I've been touring the last month here (in the US) with different orchestras, and, the reviews have been amazing.' They're treating me as the serious musician I think I am. It's been absolutely fantastic. It's only in England where they've got a chip on their shoulder because we haven't produced any great composers or something like that. Well, not until the last 20, 30 years, you know? We've produced some really great composers, but you know, we haven't got that great Impressionist movement like from France or the great Central European movement like Beethoven, Mozart and all of those guys. So I think these critics are still suffering from that kind of stigma of coming from a country where there isn't any great music, so they have to be overactive in tryin' to prove how knowledgeable they are, and that normally takes the form of being excessively critical of, particularly, their own artists.
DB: Sounds like you feel real at home here in the States, then.
K: Yeah, I really like it here because it's so much like the reverse. There were a lot of jazz musicians here in the early part of the century and even up until the '60s, '70s and '80s, who had to go to Europe to be taken seriously. And it's the opposite with me. I have to come over here to be taken seriously.
DB: Have you ever run into Joel Smirnoff of the Juilliard Quartet?
K: Only in the very old days like when - I think he was just leaving for Juilliard when I was kind of starting to be there or something. But I definitely remember crossing paths with him in those days.
DB: Because he's one of those guys who grew up listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in the Chicago blues club scene. It seemed like you and he would probably get along quite well together.
K: Yeah, I'm sure, you know, I mean Chicago's even still a great hot bed of musical activity, particularly in the blues area, isn't it?
DB: Yeah. Yeah.
K: Fantastic place.
DB: Let me ask you just a couple more questions, then I guess we're gonna have to - we're probably coming pretty close to your (time) limit here. We know about the five-year hiatus, and now that you're back, how do you keep it fresh for the next 30 years or whatever?
K: Well, you know, I'm pretty conscious of how bad it feels to be sitting in the audience listening to a 40 or 50-year-old virtuoso who comes on with an arrogant look on his face like he's been it all, done it all and everything. And basically my attitude is that each time I play a bit of music, that's going to be the last time I do it. That's the way I treat it. 'Cause I'm going to have to enjoy it for the most I can get out of it, and that I don't take anything as guaranteed. You know, each performance I do might be the last, and if you've got that attitude about it, then you really put your heart and soul into it. Also, I think once you do commit yourself that much, you find you're getting so much more out of the musicians around you that it becomes a well worthwhile investment rather than driving to a preconceived interpretation that you thought up a few years ago and are just going through the motions, you know? I've never been into that, and I think my activity in a - what would you call it? - a wide range of music is gonna help me a lot as well. I can take the energy from one and put it into the other, and I think what really makes me energy level wane a bit is doing the same thing over and over and over again, which is the unfortunate fate of many classical musicians because they haven't got - and rock musicians, let me add - like they haven't been lucky enough to have the diversity of music and interest in different types of music. It's better to be actin' in more than one framework. If you think of music as a whole, there's so much energy to be had from it that you're never gonna be short of creative energy.
DB: Cool! Cool! By the way, what were you up to in those five years that you were off? What kind of stuff were you doing?
K: Well, you know, I started taking that time off because I've been going through the kind of schedule that most classical musicians do go through, which is like 100+ concerts a year and not being able to get involved in any of the other ambitions that I'd had since I was a teenager. And so I thought, well, I'm dropping a line. I was actually playing some of my best classical music at the time, so you know, I made up my mind to go and write my own music which might have taken 10 or 20 years before I came up with something I was pleased with, but at least I could look back and say, "Well, I was playing Beethoven really well when I quit." You know, it wouldn't have been that I had to look back and say, "Well, I was playing like a pig when I quit" - which would have been worse. I don't like leaving things unfinished, so it seemed a perfect time to stop playing. It was like playing the classical stuff was going really the best it had ever been going, and so I stopped doing that in order to write some of my own music and get an improvising group together of which you'll see signs of in the concert we're talking about. I learned some other instruments a bit, at least the basics of, like, bass guitar playing, guitar playing itself and keyboard, a bit of cello. Just to like learn a few other instruments to get that fresh feeling of startin' from scratch, which in the case of the cello was a literal description of the sound.
DB: Sounds like you might have to take sabbaticals every now and then just to renew your interest in the other things that are going on.
K: Well, you know, if you listen to the old classical musicians like Rubenstein and Kreisler and Thibaud, there's a kind of immediacy and a real unification between their soul and their playing. I think it's largely because they did have the summers off. Every summer, it wasn't this desperate scramble for gettin' as many summer festivals as you can. It was actually taken totally free so that they could learn new repertoire, put the instrument down for a bit, pick it up, learn some new repertoire, rethink what they were doing in the old repertoire - and it was an ideal climate for a responsible musician/interpreter to work in. But nowadays, you have this frantic scramble with thousands of people leavin' the conservatoires every year, and it's a competitive world and everyone's got to try and get as many gigs as they can. And like, um, it's not so healthy, really.
DB: And I guess you're trying to do it the old way these days?
K: Yeah, I'm doing about four or five months a year of classical playin' and about four months of doin' stuff with my group and writing, and then there's a couple of months for having vacation and also a couple of months for, like, random meetings with other musicians who I would find really stimulating. Because that's the other thing - that you never meet half of the interesting musicians you might meet if 12 months of the year, you've got, like, concerts performances in Poughkeepsie, you know, funny towns. (Laughs).
DB: Well, I realize that I've probably kept you over here.
K: That's it. It's been a good talk, man.
DB: Okay, I have just one more question and I'll let you go. And that is - this is the one my wife begs me to ask. She wants to know what kind of car you drive.
K: What ca- I've got a Jag, which has been totally fucked up. I've spray-painted it in the colors of my soccer team, Aston Villa. And it's got dents all over it. It's a bit like a Mad Max car, you know. You see that movie, Mad Max?
DB: I haven't seen it, no.
K: I say, it's sort of beat up vehicles - like it's portrayed in the future world where, you know, like society's broken down and petrol's running out, and everyone's just fending for themselves, and they're driving these beaten up old motors. It's a bit like that. I have no respect for these bits of metal, really. If they get me from A to B, that's all right.
DB: Okay, I'll tell her what you've got.
K: What kind of car does your wife drive then?
DB: She's got a - well, it's pretty mainstream. It's a Toyota Avalon.
K: Ah, so that'll get her about then, wouldn't it?
DB: Yeah. Alright, well, I appreciate you're talking with me.
K: Well, it's great talking with you, man.
DB: Okay, bye now.
K: Hope to catch you. See you, man.
You are visitor number since January 13, 2001