The English violinist and violist (and sometimes conductor), Nigel Kennedy and comes from a musical lineage. His grandfather was Lauri Kennedy, a British-born musician and principal cellist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who played with Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein and others. His grandmother was Dorothy Kennedy, a pianist, who accompanied John McCormack and taught Enrico Caruso's children. Lauri and Dorothy settled in Australia where their son, the cellist John Kennedy, was born. At the age of 24 he moved to England and joined the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, later becoming the principal cellist of Sir Thomas Beecham's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. While in England, John developed a relationship with an English pianist, Scylla Stoner, with whom he eventually toured with in 1952 as part of the Llewellyn-Kennedy Piano Trio (with the violinist Ernest Llewellyn; Stoner was billed as "Scylla Kennedy" although she and John never married). However, John ultimately left Stoner and returned to Australia, unaware she was pregnant by him at the time. John remained unaware of the existence of his son, Nigel Kennedy, for many years afterward, meeting him for the first time when Nigel was 11. Nigel Kennedy has about 30 close relatives in Australia, whom he visits whenever he tours there.
A boy prodigy, as a 10-year-old Nigel Kennedy would pick out Fats Waller tunes on the piano after hearing his stepfather's jazz records. A pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music himself, Kennedy later studied at the Juilliard School in New York with Dorothy DeLay.
At the age of 16, Nigel Kennedy was invited by Stéphane Grappelli to appear with him at New York's Carnegie Hall, under the threat from his teachers at the Juilliard that it would ruin his classical career. He made his recording debut in 1984 with the Edward Elgar Violin Concerto. Kennedy's recording of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1989 sold over 2 million copies and earned a place as one of the best-selling classical works ever. The album remained top of the UK classical charts for over a year with sales equivalent to one copy sold every 30 seconds. He has also performed and recorded most of the major violin concerti.
After numerous performances for The Prince's Trust, the Royal Variety Performance and private performances at St. James's Palace and Buckingham Palace, he released his biography Always Playing in 1991. Nigel Kennedy then took the controversial and highly publicised decision to withdraw completely from public performance, at which point he made the album “Music In Color” with Stephen Duffy. He made a triumphant return to the international concert platform to critical acclaim five years later. In 1997, he received an award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music at the BRIT Awards, and in 2001 received the 'Male Artist of the Year' award.
In 1999 Sony Classical released “The Kennedy Experience”, which featured improvisational recordings of Jimi Hendrix compositions. According to a BBC interview with Nigel Kennedy, the violinist stated that the recording is "an album of music inspired by Jimi Hendrix. It is an extended instrumental work in six movements, each movement a classical interpretation of a Hendrix song". On the recording, Kennedy is accompanied by seven other musicians, and the lineup includes two cellos, an oboe, two guitars, a Dobro, flute, and double bass. With cellist Lynn Harrell, he has recorded an album of duets.
In late 2005, Bigel Kennedy went to New York to record his first album for the jazz label Blue Note Records. Other musicians on the album were Ron Carter on double bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums; and saxophonist Joe Lovano. Kennedy has since stated that "from now on, at least 50 per cent of my endeavour is going to be in the jazz field". He has also recorded The Doors Concerto (with Jaz Coleman), a violin based orchestral version of many Doors songs, including "Strange Days", "LA Woman", "The End", and "Riders On The Storm". He has been exploring Klezmer music with the Polish jazz band Kroke. The band consists of musicians "who have been knocking around with Kennedy for five years. ... [Kennedy explains], 'I met them all separately at jam sessions in the jazz club near where I live in Cracow, ... I thought: that’s the drummer I want, that’s the bass player, and so on. They’ve all got their own projects.'"
On November 27, 2000, Nigel Kennedy joined rock group The Who at the Royal Albert Hall to play the violin solo on the song "Baba O'Riley", released three years later on the album Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Kennedy has played on several tracks by British singer/songwriter Kate Bush, who was a guest on Kennedy's episode of This Is Your Life. He was featured on two of Sarah Brightman's songs for her 2003 album “Harem”.
Kennedy appointed a new manager, Terri Robson, and returned to the Proms after an absence of 21 years, performing E. Elgar's Violin Concerto and a late-night Prom with the Nigel Kennedy Quintet. He also plays the viola, and has recorded Sir William Walton's Viola Concerto.
Kennedy's persona is seen by some as abrasive and limiting to his career, citing as an example his use of a 'Mockney' accent instead of the Received Pronunciation he had when he was interviewed as a child in 1964 on the BBC's Town and Around. Until 2006 he had expressed his intention of not appearing on the classical London concert scene with a London orchestra, seen by some as arrogance and stated by Kennedy in terms of frustrated perfectionism. Kennedy expresses a preference for the immediate appeal of live performance, and often records entire works or movements in single 'takes' to preserve this sense in his recordings. He also introduces improvisatory elements in his performances, as in his Jimi Hendrix-inspired cadenza to the Beethoven Violin Concerto and his jazz and fusion recordings.
When not touring, Kennedy divides his time between residences in Malvern, Worcestershire (where his ex-partner and son Sark live); and London and Kraków where he lives with his Polish second wife, Agnieszka. In the late 1980s, Kennedy was romantically involved with singer/guitarist Brix Smith.