Hurricane Club

Birdie Dunlap's Organ Soul Jazz Mecca where the "In-Crowd" Mingled
The Hurricane Club, located on Center Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, in its glory days during the mid-'50s through the late '60s was one of the hottest small jazz clubs in the world. The cozy club offered shows six nights a week and a Monday afternoon matinee. Working class jazz fans and celebrities mingled and rubbed elbows crowding the club to hear top “soul jazz” and hard-bop acts.  Wes Montgomery, Roland Kirk, Kenny Burrell, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, Nancy Wilson, George Benson, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Wild Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith and many other jazz stars played the stage of the Hurricane. It was a must stop for true jazz fans.  As one patron said "if you hadn't gone to the Hurricane over the weekend you hadn't been out."

The Hurricane was the queen of "The Chitlin' Circuit" of small “soul jazz” organ clubs spread across the East and Midwest. Jazz organist Jimmy McGriff hailed the Hurricane as “the Apollo Theater” of the jazz organ universe. Many jazz organists established their national reputations wowing the audiences of the Hurricane. If an organist did well at the Hurricane the booking agents in New York heard about it and gave them more gigs on the circuit. The Hurricane was the proving ground and launch pad for the careers of organists Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes, Johnny Hammond Smith, Shirley Scott, Don Patterson, Wild Bill Davis and Pittsburgh’s own Gene Ludwig. According to George Benson who got his start playing with organist Jack McDuff, the Hurricane helped to make the Hammond B-3 organ a “legit” jazz instrument. 

Within the Chitlin Circuit the Hurricane was unique as it was owned and managed by African-Americans Birdie and Shine Dunlap. Birdie Dunlap was a self-sufficient African American woman who was a pioneering entertainment leader. She was jazz maven who gracefully welcomed a socially diverse mix of jazz fans to her club. Jack McDuff called Birdie “a big voice in jazz organ" who introduced her patrons to great new artists. As the hostess of her upscale club Birdie insisted that her customers sit together, respect each other, forget their differences and mingle to share the joyful jazz experience. 

The Hurricane was an oasis island in the sea of prejudice and segregation of the 1950s and 1960s.  The Midway and other downtown Pittsburgh clubs featured many of the same acts that played clubs in the Hill, but unwritten segregation rules shut African Americans jazz fans out.   The musicians union often kept African American artists from working the down town clubs.  Clubs like the Hurricane and the Crawford Grill welcomed a diverse set of jazz fans and provided work for African American jazz artists.  

The Hurricane’s great jazz scene drew crowds from the Hill District neighborhood and from all over Western, Pa.  Frequenting the club were young and old, white and black, blue collar and white collar, the famous and the common, the upper crust and the under crust all side by side as described by Ann Butler of the Pittsburgh Press.  Birdie told Ann Butler “I just can’t explain it to you because segregation and prejudice was rampant.  But everybody would be sitting together in the same booths.  And I had a good time with ‘em.”  Birdie Dunlap provided a welcoming safe atmosphere for everyone to socialize.
Hurricane Opening 1953 - Birdie in White in center
Teenie Harris Photo

The Music of Artists who played the Hurricane

Birdie on Right - Seating Everyone Together