He was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie, who hired him for his sextet in 1946. He quickly acquired experience working with the most important figures in jazz of the era, including John Coltrane, Woody Herman, Howard McGhee, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. In the Gillespie big band one of his jobs was to play in a quartet with John Lewis, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke while the horn section took a break from the demanding high-register horn parts. This group became the Modern Jazz Quartet, which had a long independent career.
His composition "Bags' Groove" ("Bags" was his nickname) is a jazz standard.