Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers opened last night at Blues Alley -- without Art Blakey. The indomitable drummer and band leader, known for keeping a strenuous itinerary, didn't make it to the club in time for the first set, so the latest edition of his band went on without him.

In his place was John Ramsey, a protege of Blakey's and the band's road manager, whose playing was surprisingly sure-footed considering the circumstances. His initiation came hard and fast on a propulsive workout, encompassing impressive round-robin solos from the balance of the band: trumpeter Wallace Roney; Bobby Watson, Branford Marsalis and Billy Pierce on saxophone; Clarence Seay on bass; and Donald Brown on piano.

Local favorite Roney, a graduate of the Ellington School for the Performing Arts, has his work cut out for him replacing the widely acclaimed Wynton Marsalis, but he's capable of rising to the occasion, as he proved with a vibrant solo on "All Blues."

No worse for the wear, Blakey finally stepped on stage an hour and a half late, easing into place with a bright "This Can't Be Love." He remains the definitive hard bop drummer, powerful and resourceful yet with a sensitive ear for accompaniment. This last quality served him well for most of the extended set, which gave his young, charging brood plenty of solo space and room for inspired interplay.

The Jazz Messengers appear through Sunday at Blues Alley.