Neil Ardley

Leader of the New Jazz Orchestra
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The Independent Online

Neil Richard Ardley, composer, pianist and writer: born Carshalton, Surrey 26 May 1937; married 1960 Bridget Gantley (one daughter), 2003 Vivian Wilson; died Milford, Derbyshire 23 February 2004.

Neil Ardley was responsible for one of the most impressive jazz orchestral albums ever recorded. He led the New Jazz Orchestra and with it in 1968 recorded Le Déjeuner Sur L'herbe. The album was in itself an oddity by being the only work by an English band ever issued on the prestigious American label Verve. It is disappointing that Ardley was not better known.

He began in music by studying the piano and the tenor sax when he was 13, playing both instruments in jazz groups at Bristol University, from where he graduated in 1959. He moved to London and studied with two American jazz composers who lived in the city at the time, Ray Premru and Bill Russo. Ardley became the pianist in the big band led by the saxophonist John Williams and wrote his first compositions and arrangements for Williams to play.

In 1962 Ardley joined the editorial staff of World Book Encyclopaedia, the English branch of an American company that was set up in London to produce an international encyclopaedia. The job took four years and whilst doing it Ardley developed his ability to write for young people. In 1958 he worked as a freelance editor in order to allow more time for his music.

Several of the most accomplished young jazz musicians in London had come together in 1963 and eventually took the title of the New Jazz Orchestra. Ardley joined them as musical director the following year. There he met Michael Gibbs, Ian Carr, Dave Gelly, Don Rendell and Trevor Tompkins, all of whom went on to distinguish themselves and remained amongst Ardley's lifelong friends. He remained as musical director, never playing an instrument in the band, until 1969. The orchestra and Ardley were inspired by the American orchestra leader and composer Gil Evans and some of the English works matched those of Evans in their skill and inspiration.

During the Seventies, parallel to his career in music, Ardley began writing information books, mainly for children. His book The Way Things Work (1988) sold over three million copies worldwide. By the time he retired from writing in 2000 he had written 101 books that sold approximately 10 million copies.

In the late Sixties, Ian Carr introduced Ardley to the recording entrepreneur Denis Preston. Le Déjeuner Sur L'herbe had included compositions and arrangements by other musicians as well as Ardley. With Preston's encouragement, Ardley began writing and recording more substantial, longer works of his own, adding strings, woodwind and harp to the basic jazz line-up. His A Symphony of Amaranths was recorded by a 25-piece band with strings and received the first ever Arts Council of Great Britain award for a jazz recording.

During the Seventies, Ardley added electronics and his experiments here led him into the world of what others might regard as the far out. In 1988 he formed the band Zyklus with what is described by Ian Carr as having "the aim of exploring the boundaries of composition and improvisation by developing a semi-improvised electronic sound world which could accommodate an acoustic, improvising soloist".

Ardley found a new interest in 2000 when he first began writing choral music. He sang in the Bakewell Chorus and wrote several compositions for the choir. He had completed, just before his death, his Setting of Four Poems to be performed by the Chorus in June in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

Steve Voce