Nigel Kennedy: Still pulling the strings

Violinist Kennedy can’t take an evening of pure Bach because it’s too serious. So an evening talking about his childhood might be even more complicated...

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“You don’t,” says Nigel Kennedy, “need to tell me how to fucking talk! Find these motherfuckers, and if they want the concert to happen, they’d better come here. If they want it, they can have it, if they don’t they can’t.” And then, about five minutes after he arrived on it, he storms off the stage.

The “stage” is, in fact, the raised floor of the altar area of an 800-year-old church. It’s in Switzerland. It’s on a mountain. The church is beautiful, and full of faded  frescoes. The mountain is beautiful, and bathed in a soft, early-evening light. Switzerland is beautiful, as I know from the three trains I’ve taken to get here, after my crack-of-dawn flight. I don’t know how the “motherfuckers” who organized the concert will feel if it’s cancelled, but I do know that I’ll find it hard to keep this smile.

I’d been almost expecting to see Heidi as I waited in the churchyard, gazing out at wooden chalets and mountain peaks. But the figure that finally lolloped up the hill, in combats and a T-shirt saying “Pure Genius”, which may or may not refer to a famous beer, didn’t look much like Heidi at all. His spiky hair, which is thinner than it used to be, still looks like the hair of someone who’s trying to look fierce. His bulldog, “Bully”, doesn’t have to try. But his handshake is firm, his face is open and his smile is warm.

Before the outburst in the church, my biggest worry (in a land famous for its time-pieces) was the ticking clock. I’d been promised time to talk between the rehearsal and the concert, and had, as the minutes passed, with still no sign of the evening’s star, felt it ebbing away. As Kennedy’s manager, Terri, and his tour manager, Steve, try to deal with the latest crisis, with the air of people who are used to dealing with crises, I wonder if I’ve made a 10-hour journey in vain. But  moments later, the storm has passed. Nigel Kennedy jumps back on stage, picks up his violin and plays. “There’s not a problem with the sound in here,” he says, as the notes echo round the ancient church. “Is there?”

With his band members, Jarek Smietana on guitar, Yaron Stavi on bass and Krzysztof Dziedzic on drums, he plays bits of the Fats Waller songs he has arranged for these instruments, which he, and they, will also perform, on 15 September, at the Royal Festival Hall. It’s hard not to sway or tap a toe as the bouncy melodies float off the stage. For a while, this postcard-pretty church, in the postcard-pretty mountain village of Saanen, feels like a jazz club in New York. But when we all troop out, to let the audience in, it doesn’t. The people gathered outside are dressed for a big night out. And it is, I realise, as they swarm around us, going to be very hard to get this man away.

Everyone stares as we find a patch on the grass and as I set my tape recorder firmly down. A man and woman wander up and Kennedy greets them like old friends. The man chats. His wife chats. The clock ticks. “Shall we go somewhere a bit quieter?” I ask, when it’s clear that my fierce stare isn’t going to stop the flow. I march Kennedy to some gravestones  behind some bushes, and “Bully” trots  behind. “I’m not religious,” says Kennedy, when I try to sit down, “but I’m not ’appy doing this ’ere. It was bad enough all that stuff in the church about the language.”

So we go to a room that’s been set up as a green room, and someone brings us mugs of tea. Now that I’ve got him literally a corner, I’m not sure where to start. Where do you start with someone who sold two million copies of his first major recording, who was, in fact, one of the first classical musicians to reach a popular audience? And who has been famous for more than 20 years for his “bad boy” image, mockney accent, and spiky hair? Since that first, bestselling, Vivaldi, there has been Brahms, and Beethoven, and Elgar, and Bach, as you might expect, but there has also been jazz, and rock, and klesmer.  There has been a kind of retirement, and a coming out of a kind of retirement. There has been a new wife, a new country, and a new start. And the concert starts in 20 minutes.

So, I ask, as if we’d just been introduced at a cocktail party, did he just say he lived in Hampstead? Kennedy nods. “I’ve got a place in Belsize Park.” And how much time does he spend there? “Quite a lot.” Already, I’m confused. I have just watched an Imagine about Nigel Kennedy made two years before. In it, Kennedy is filmed wandering, with Alan Yentob, round the countryside near his chalet in the Polish mountains, and playing at the jazz club round the corner from his flat in Krakow. In three words, he has punctured the romantic fantasy I’ve built up. I thought, I say, that he’d fallen in love with Poland?

“I did,” he says, “but I’m, like, spending more time in England, because of, like, musical things, and my kid and football.” Oh no! Two minutes in and we’re already on to football. But perhaps a feigned interest in football will get me a bit more time? So how much time does he spend on it? Kennedy takes a gulp of his tea. “Not enough. Villa play once or twice a week,” he says, “so that’s the maximum. I watch them about 15 or 20 times a season.”

“Villa” is, of course,  Aston Villa and Nigel Kennedy is one of their biggest fans.  “You can change your wife,” he says, and he doesn’t seem to be joking, “but you never change your football team.” I had, I tell him, wondered whether the “Villa” shirts he so often wore at concerts were just another prop in his “diamond geezer” image. Kennedy looks hurt. “I started supporting them ,” he says, in the tones you might use to explain something to a child, “when I was, like, eight, so it’s too late now. But I do like to redress the balance a bit, because we never get on TV, no one ever talks about us.”

OK. Enough’s enough. It would, it’s clear, be perfectly possible for Nigel Kennedy to talk about Aston Villa for the rest of the evening. Or even the rest of his life. So I decide to ditch my attempts to charm him, and ask about the concert tonight. I’d read, I tell him, that he’d discovered Fats Waller when his stepfather played it when he was eight or nine. Why had it taken so long to get round to performing his work?

“He’s a beautiful songwriter,” he says. “But I never thought of specializing in his stuff. I started getting into single composers and juxtaposing them with other single composers, because one evening of pure Bach is just going to give everyone a nervous breakdown, including myself.” Is it? Why? “It’s so serious,” says Kennedy. “I mean, how deep can you go?”

Bach, I tell him, is pretty much my number one. Kennedy smiles. “Me too.” So is this Bach/Fats Waller combination, I say, fumbling around, because I love music but don’t really know how to talk about it, something to do with brain and heart? Bach, surely, is all about intense emotion and restraint? Fats Waller, surely, is all about intense emotion without  restraint? Kennedy nods kindly. “Well, you know,” he says, “it’s because I enjoy it, and, like, every good classical musician has been a showman. Fritz Kreisler, Alfred Cortot, Pablo Casals. They have the heart. They’re giving something more. Bach,”  he says, “has got great pathos, but he was an entertainer.”

And Fats Waller, I remind him, as if I hadn’t only just discovered this myself, was a child prodigy, and so, of course, was Kennedy. Was there, I ask, thinking of the fist bumps, and “yeah mans” and “cool cats” that have punctuated every conversation, a part of him that identified with the outsider? Kennedy looks surprised. “I never viewed black people as being  outsiders,” he says. “When I was brought up as a teenager in New York, I would often be the only white one in the club.” He’s talking about his time at the Juilliard School, where he went after nine years at the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey. The black jazz clubs he went to were, he says, “more important” than what he was taught at Juilliard. “Europeans are far ahead of Americans in terms of musical theory and analysis, but America in those days was much further ahead in jazz.”

When he was 16, he went on stage at the Carnegie Hall with Stéphane Grappelli, the great French jazz violinist and friend of Menuhin he’d met as a child. His teacher at Juilliard, Dorothy DeLay, warned him that the classical music establishment wouldn’t like it, and they didn’t. Kennedy lost his contract with Sony, but what he found, with the help of DeLay, and in spite of “an inferiority complex” about not being Jewish (which is, he says, “handy” for a violinist) was a new self- belief. So was that, I ask, thinking of black and white footage of a child prodigy speaking in a Brief Encounter voice, when he changed his accent? “When I was about 13 or 14,” he says, not quite answering the question, “things started changing, and that was it.”

It’s time, says Terri, for him to  get changed. He takes off his trousers, and Terri bustles me out before I see more. A few minutes later, in a packed church, full of flowers and candles, he wanders on to the stage in a shiny black jacket Terri whispers is “his best”. “It’s so good,” he tells the audience, “to be doing Bach here, in Yehudi Menuhin’s place.” Saanen, it turns out was where Menuhin had a home. It’s the first place Kennedy played abroad. This concert is part of the annual Menuhin Festival in nearby Gstaad. The audience look like people who go to a lot of concerts. They also, after a few moments, look entranced.

The next two and a half hours are a  lesson in seduction. Kennedy smiles, and jokes, and flatters, and charms. But when he plays, first Bach’s Praeludium, and then Bach’s Sonata No 2 in A minor, you forget the jokes, and the smiles, and the charm. All you think about is that those notes, coming out of wood, and catgut and horsehair, sound like the deepest yearnings of the human heart.

After the solo Bach there’s a jazz version of the Bach Double Violin Concerto with a former fellow student at the Juilliard, Michael Guttman. “We should,” says Guttman, when it’s finished, “be grateful to Yehudi Menuhin, who started the festival, but who paved the way for Nigel Kennedy to play the  violin. You are,” he says, and he seems to know what he’s talking about, “Yehudi Menuhin’s true heir.”

After the Bach, there’s an interval, and after that, there’s Fats Waller. And after that, there are so many encores our hands begin to ache. Steve is under strict instructions to march Kennedy to the “green room”, but I’m sure he’ll be kidnapped on the way. When I get there, and see Kennedy struggling with a bottle of champagne that explodes all over me, and doing fist bumps with all the people he’s invited back, I feel what’s left of my hope drain away. “I don’t want to talk to her here,” he says to Terri, after an hour of backslapping, when she tells him that she’s told everyone to go on to the restaurant. “It will be so depressing!”

So I take charge. I will, I tell him, as we all set off for the restaurant, talk to him if it kills me. Which, I’m beginning to think, it probably will. Is it true, I ask, as he takes another giant swig from a bottle of champagne, that he doesn’t drink at all when he’s doing Bach? “I don’t,” he says, “drink very much if I’ve got to play some serious shit. Yeah, man. It’s a bit like training.” But this is the last night, of a long tour, and  tomorrow he’s going on holiday, with his 15-year-old son, Sark, and his wife,  Agnieszka, who works as a live music  producer in Poland, and, of course, “Bully”. You can see why you’d want to get wasted, after weeks of sobriety on the road. But a deal’s a deal. “I’m looking forward to my sound booth in a corner,” I tell him firmly, when we arrive at the restaurant. Kennedy looks as though he isn’t.

Somehow, I get him past the people in the restaurant who want to tell him how much they love him, and to a table in the corner. We clink glasses. He orders trout. “Take me to the water!” he sings. Water, I’m beginning to think, as he orders red wine to go with the champagne, might be a better idea all round. But my next question seems to sober him up. I’ve been thinking about the world he lived in as a child, and thinking that, for all the beauty it has brought, it seems so alien and strange. Did his musical childhood, I ask, ever feel like a kind of a prison?

“Ooh!” he says, almost as though he’s been hit. “Well, when I was doing badly at the Yehudi Menuhin school, it felt like a prison. I was out of the house, and into a new place, and there was no outlet, so it felt quite bad.” He was sent there, on a scholarship specially created by Menuhin himself, when he was seven. His mother, who’d been abandoned by his father when she was pregnant, was a piano teacher who had spotted his talent. The story I’ve picked up is of the boy who moved effortlessly – if you can call hours and hours of practice a day “effortless” – from child prodigy to classical music superstar. But no. “From seven to 11,” he says, “my progress was so slow the teachers wanted to chuck me out.”

His mother remarried, and moved to Solihull, near Birmingham, when he was eight. But before that, in a time when most women weren’t, she was on her own. “It was a stigma,” Kennedy admits, “having this kid in tow. There was a beach, like, 500 metres away, living in Brighton, and she’d never go there as a single woman. So,” he says, with one of his wild cackles, “I’m one of the worse swimmers in Britain.”

It took him, he says, a while to “acclimatize” to the new family in Solihull and he was, in any case, only there for holidays and the odd weekend. It sounds, I tell him, miserable. Suddenly Kennedy is fierce. “It’s not really my job,” he says, “to dwell on the losses… I’ve seen too many intelligentsia achieving absolutely nothing by being absolutely stuck up themselves. I don’t want to do it. It’s a waste of time.”

OK, I say, so he had this unusual childhood, and… but Kennedy interrupts. “Everybody’s got an unusual childhood.” No, I tell him, they haven’t.  “I wasn’t raped as a child,” he says, “I’ve not been beaten up as a child more than once, so nothing happened.” I’m not saying, I tell him, that it was a bad childhood, just an unusual one. Not everyone’s a world-class violinist who went to a hothouse school. “Five or six of the people who went to the Menuhin school,” he tells me, as if he’s suddenly decided to take my side, “have committed suicide. They’ve had nervous breakdowns. They don’t love music. They don’t love life. So in that respect I’ve found a normality and it’s not bad.”

I’m beginning to think Nigel Kennedy is much tougher on himself than almost all his critics. So why, I ask, was he half an hour late for a concert in Birmingham last year? “There is,” he says, “no excuse. I’m going to give people the best I can, and sometimes I’m really shit with time.” And does he ever feel he gives a less-than-good performance? “Yeah,” he says. It’s never going to be worse than the level that someone can enjoy the music. But of course I’m going to criticize myself  because not every performance can be the best you’ve ever done.”

I don’t know if that concert in that candlelit church was the best he’s done, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t all that many artistic experiences to match Nigel Kennedy playing Bach. I’m also pretty sure that this man, who still practices for hours every single day, and works so hard to give his best, but whose time-keeping isn’t always brilliant, has a bloody good heart.

So how, I ask, does he think he’s doing? “I’d say,” he says, and he really seems to mean it, “like, not below zero. I’ve got a kid I’m very proud of. He mixes with the other geezers. He’s not frightened to do work. I’m happy, largely because of him, and because of the people around me not being unhappy when they’re with me. I’d call it,” he says, “definitely above zero, but with a lot more to go.”

Nigel Kennedy’s Bach Meets Fats Waller is at the Birmingham Symphony Hall on 10 September, Manchester Bridgwater Hall on 12 September and at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 ( on 15 September;

This story appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar: The Indispensable Guide to Arts & Culture.