Born William Michael Allingham Ashton, this English bandleader organized his first combos during his studies at Oxford University and went on to become the director of the prestigious National Youth Jazz Orchestra. He began his musical life as a saxophonist, and as such apparently did a bit of blowing in some London clubs in the early '60s. His orchestral activities began apace in the middle of this decade, when he established the London Schools Jazz Orchestra. It was this group that would evolve into the aforementioned youth orchestra, with a string of albums proving Ashton remarkable in his ability to bring out the best in young musicians. Each of the names the orchestra has used provides a description of the group's concept, including the transitional London Youth Jazz Orchestra, which eliminated any requirement to be associated with "schools," and the group's final choice of names, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, which eliminates having to be from London.
By whatever name, this was a fully professional orchestra as of 1974 and the first big band of its kind in the country. Allowing a good deal of the repertoire to source from orchestra members' compositions might have caused more riots if introduced as a plot element in Fellini's film Orchestra Rehearsal, but that hasn't driven away guest stars such as trumpeter Shorty Rogers, who toured with the ensemble in both 1982 and 1983, and top-flight British big band leader John Dankworth, no doubt prowling the ranks for recruits. Ashton contributes compositions and arrangements while serving as the orchestra's music director. In the '90s, he was also involved in producing live recordings at New York City's Blue Note club.