Neil Ardley was born in 1937 in Wallington, Surrey, England. He was educated at Wallington County Grammar School and Bristol University, where he took a degree in chemistry in 1959. He began to take a practical interest in music at the age of 13, when he started to learn the piano, and later took up the saxophone, playing both instruments in jazz groups at the university.
On leaving university, he went to live in London and joined the John Williams Big Band on piano, writimg his first arrangements and compositions for the band. In 1964, he was invited to become the director of the New Jazz Orchestra, a newly-formed orchestra made up of many of the best young jazz musicians in London. He developed his arranging and composing skills with the NJO, an association that continued until the NJO's last recording in 1973 (apart from a reunion in 1993). Here he met many musicians with whom he was to form lasting friendships, notably Ian Carr, Jon Hiseman, Barbara Thompson, Dave Gelly, Michael Gibbs, Don Rendell and Trevor Tomkins. All played on the subsequent recordings that Neil made under his own name.
At the same time, Neil was building a professional career in publishing. In 1962, he joined the editorial staff of the World Book Encyclopedia, an American publisher that set up in London to produce an international edition of the encyclopedia. Over the next four years that the project took, he learnt the craft of writing for young people literally from A to Z. A spell at Hamlyn, then pioneering low-price information books, followed and in 1968 he became a freelance book editor in order to have more time to devote to music. Editing evolved into writing over the 1970s, and he became an author of information books, mainly for children, on natural history (especially birds), science and technology, and music.
As Neil Ardley developed from an editor to an author in his publishing career, so he developed from an arranger to a composer in his musical career. In the late 1960s, Ian Carr introduced him to Denis Preston, who had a stable of composers and performers - many in the jazz field - that he commissioned and recorded. With Denis' encouragement, Neil composed his first full-length works, developing a style of music that combined classical methods of composition, with their deep emotional return of developing themes and harmonic structures, with the spirit and spontaneity of jazz. His music is very tuneful and often richly orchestrated, as Denis made available a wide range of instruments, including strings, woodwinds and harp, to extend the conventional jazz line-up. Neil continued to explore this vein by adding electronics as synthesizers developed during the 1970s.
In 1980, as Neil began an all-electronic album, his recording contract was abruptly terminated and it was obvious that no viable future lay in music. Fortunately, at this time book design began to progress astonishingly as computers made their way into publishing, and Neil found himself at the forefront of this development when he began to write principally for the innovative British publisher Dorling Kindersley in 1984. There was little energy or time for music as a whole series of DK books evolved, notably the best-selling and award-winning The Way Things Work, which Neil wrote with the brilliant American illustrator David Macaulay and which sold over 3 million copies worldwide. Overall, by the time he retired in 2000, Neil had written 101 books that sold a total of about 10 million copies.
There was a little new music during this period, notably with the electronic jazz group Zyklus that combined improvisation with electronic methods of composition, but Neil did not find a new composing voice until 2000. He then began to compose choral music, having gained useful experience by singing in local choirs during the late 1990s, and was fully engaged in vocal music until his death in 2004.