The Messengers originated in a series of groups led or co-led by Blakey and pianist Horace Silver, though the name was not used on the earliest of their recordings. The name "Jazz Messengers" had however been used by Blakey in the late forties for various groups. The most celebrated of these early records (credited to "The Art Blakey Quintet"), is A Night at Birdland from February 1954, one of the earliest commercially released "live" jazz records. This featured Silver, Blakey, the young trumpeter Clifford Brown, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and bassist Curly Russell. The "Jazz Messengers" name was first used for this group on a 1954 recording nominally led by Silver, with Blakey, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham and Doug Watkins — the same quintet would record The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia the following year, still as a collective. Donald Byrd replaced Dorham, and the group recorded an album called simply The Jazz Messengers for Columbia Records in 1956. Blakey took over the group name when Silver left after the band's first year (taking Mobley, Byrd and Watkins with him to form a new quintet with a variety of drummers), and the band was known as "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers" from then onwards.
From 1959 to 1961 the group featured Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Jymie Merritt, Lee Morgan, and Bobby Timmons. The second line-up (1961–1964) was a sextet that added trombonist Curtis Fuller and replaced Morgan and Timmons with Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton, respectively. Shorter was the musical director of the group, and many of his original compositions such as "Lester Left Town" remained staples of Blakey's repertoire even after Shorter's departure. (Other players over the years made permanent marks on Blakey's repertoire — Timmons, composer of "Dat Dere" and "Moanin'", Benny Golson, composer of "Along Came Betty" and "Are You Real", and, later, Bobby Watson.) Shorter's more experimental inclinations pushed the band at the time into an engagement with the 1960s "New Thing", as it was called: the influence of Coltrane's contemporary records on Impulse! is evident on Free For All (1964), often cited as the greatest document of the Shorter-era Messengers (and certainly one of the most fearsomely powerful examples of hard bop on record).