Blakey made a name for himself in the 1940s in the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine. He worked with bebop musicians Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the mid-1950s Horace Silver and Blakey formed the Jazz Messengers, a group that the drummer was associated with for the next 35 years. The group was formed as a collective of contemporaries, but over the years the band became known as an incubator for young talent, including Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and Wynton Marsalis. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz calls the Jazz Messengers “the archetypal hard bop group of the late 50s”.
Blakey was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame (in 1981), the Grammy Hall of Fame (in 1998 and 2001), and was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1991. Blakey was born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, probably to a single mother who died shortly after his birth, and her name is often cited as Marie Roddicker (or Roddericker) although Blakey’s own 1937 marriage license shows her maiden name to have been Jackson. His biological father was Bertram Thomas Blakey, originally of Ozark, Alabama, whose family migrated northward to Pittsburgh sometime between 1900 and 1910. Blakey’s uncle, Rubi Blakey, was a popular Pittsburgh singer, choral leader, and teacher who attended Fisk University.