Haynes made his professional debut in 1944 at the age of seventeen in his native Boston. Haynes appeared in the game Grand Theft Auto IV as the host of the jazz radio station JNR. From 1953 to 1958 he toured with singer Sarah Vaughan.
Haynes is among the most recorded drummers in jazz and in a career lasting more than 60 years has played in a wide range of styles ranging from swing and bebop to jazz fusion and avant-garde jazz. He has a highly expressive personal style ("Snap Crackle" was a nickname given him in the 1950s) and is known to foster a deep engagement in his bandmates.