Graham Chainey: “Our Nige” - Kennedy was born in BN1

Nigel Kennedy on the balcony of the Regency Square flat
Nigel Kennedy on the balcony of the Regency Square flat

Our Nige is going to be back in town.

Our Nige is going to be back in town. The maverick maestro is playing a big gig at the Dome. Fabled fiddler Nigel Kennedy, erstwhile enfant terrible of classical music – he of the spiked hair, stubble chin, mockney accent, Aston Villa shirt, he who made Vivaldi cool and conductors, critics and concert managements hot under their conservative collars – will be performing next week in tribute to one of his musical idols, rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who himself played the Dome back in 1967.

Nigel Kennedy

Nigel Kennedy

I say “our Nige” since he was born and bred in Brighton – and not, please “Hove, Brighton”, as the publicity flyer has it. He was born in the Royal Sussex County Hospital on December 28 1956 – which means that, incredibly, the bad boy who once shook the musical establishment is coming up for 60.

It’s tempting to look back to those early Brighton days for some insight into the guy’s unorthodox style, his edgy insecurities, his irreverence for authority figures (he remembers when angry, aged five, jumping from a chair and trying to “punch God”).

His father, an orchestral cellist, having shipped back to Australia before he was born, he was brought up by his mother and grandmother – both piano teachers – in a flat in Regency Square. His early memories are of being under the piano while lessons were in progress, of tricycle rides on the prom, and of climbing from the bed in his attic room onto “a sort of window shelf” from which he could look out across the roofs to the sea. He loved watching the sea in its various moods, and charting the progress of boats across its surface.

There’s a photo of little Nigel on the balcony looking perfectly conventional, and in his youth, as he confesses, he “spoke properly, and all that”. His first school was a newly opened Montessori school in New Church Road called The Fold (still going), where he remembers breaking a bottle over another boy’s head (he had already developed a useful split personality, blaming such unfortunate incidents on “Bertie”, his rebellious other half). When the dentist on the ground floor of the Regency Square house decided to sell up, the Kennedys moved to a terraced house in Lyndhurst Road, Hove.

By the age of seven he had won a place at the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School, near Leatherhead. Menuhin – Kennedy’s first surrogate father figure – apparently saw in him something he was as yet unaware of himself, and paid his fees, though as a boarder Kennedy was at first lonely, miserable, introverted. “I guess something like 80 per cent of what I was formally taught at my schools, particularly at the Menuhin, I reacted to badly.” His mother’s remarriage and move up north were further traumas.

It was his second father figure, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, whom he first met aged 14, who helped free him up and find his own unique personality. He recalls doing a Dome gig with Grappelli, and being impressed that Grappelli spent the day browsing the antique shops in the Lanes and knocking back double brandies – yet played sublimely and got a standing ovation. From that moment, Kennedy ceased trying to be Menuhin.

No one doubts Kennedy’s versatility, his musical engagement, his infectious spontaneity, and he has done much to bring classical music to a wider audience – and, for that matter, to introduce classical fans to such genres as jazz, klezmer, gipsy, folk. For all his clownish cultivation of a yobbo image, he’s mischievous rather than subversive, antisocial by style rather than by act. To use his own quaint vernacular, he’s the bloke with the golden Guarneri, and his Hendrix gig is sure to be unpredictable, fiery, and hip.