In the 1940s, he was a member of Mary Lou Williams', Fletcher Henderson's, and Billy Eckstine's bands. He converted to Islam during a long visit to West Africa in the late 1940s and briefly took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.
In 1955, he and Horace Silver founded the Jazz Messengers, a hard bop group which trained many of the most important young musicians of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, and Branford and Wynton Marsalis. Blakey took the group over when Silver left after the band's first year. He continued performing and touring with the group into the late 1980s.