The Jazz Passengers were founded in 1987 by Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes in order to bring lively humor and entertainment back into modern jazz. The name, a takeoff on Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, signifies that the musicians are merely along for a wild ride. The band also includes percussionist E.J. Rodriguez, bassist Brad Jones (a cohort of Elvin Jones and Muhal Richard Abrams), Steely Dan touring vibist Bill Ware and guitarist Marc Ribot, who has appeared on albums by noted singer/songwriters Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Nathanson and Fowlkes met while playing in the pit band for the Big Apple Circus, which gave them the opportunity to play the Charles Mingus music they loved and pay the bills as well.
The two joined John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and left after a short time to record a duet album together. They added more and more studio musicians until eventually, the Jazz Passengers were born. The group made a name for itself in the New York City avant-garde scene centering on the Knitting Factory with its hybrid of Mingus-influenced postbop, dance rhythms and original tunes complete with lyrics and/or entertaining stories. After five albums on small independent labels, the Passengers finally recorded their major-label debut, Jazz Passengers in Love. In 1994, rock singer Deborah Harry started touring and recording with the band.