Donald Bailey was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 26, 1933. He was largely self-taught as a drummer.
Bailey got his big break in the jazz world and he is probably best known as the drummer in the trio of jazz organist Jimmy Smith from 1956 to 1964 and also for his work with The Three Sounds on Blue Note Records. While based in Los Angeles, Bailey also worked as a sideman for musicians including Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Hampton Hawes, Kenny Burrell, and Red Mitchell. In the mid-1970s, Bailey moved to Japan, where he lived for five years.
His album Blueprints of Jazz Vol.3 featured Charles Tolliver (trumpet), George Burton (piano), and Odean Pope (tenor saxophone), and was issued by Talking House Records in 2008. His playing also featured on the soundtracks of the films Buck and the Preacher and Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me.
Bailey performed around the San Francisco Bay Area until his late seventies and moved to Montclair, California, shortly before his death at age 80 in October 2013.