Eleanor Collins, Canada’s first lady of jazz, turns 100

At 100 years age, Canadian jazz icon Eleanor Collins has one mantra — just take it one day at a time.

“That’s the thing that my mother said to me a long time ago,” Collins recalled from her home in Surrey, B.C., where she lives independently.

“She said, ‘my dear, you just take one day at a time. Do the best you can that day and just keep moving …  And it’s the best advice one could give one.'”

Collins’ remarkable life shows a person who made the very most of every day given to her.

The singer, television host and entertainer was born and raised in Edmonton on Nov. 21, 1919 — part of the movement of black homesteaders who migrated from Oklahoma and settled on the prairies.

In the 1930s, she moved to Vancouver. Her work in the jazz scene — alongside Vancouver’s top musicians, Chris Gage, Lance Harrison, Doug Parker and Dave Robbins — brought her acclaim.

She recorded music, performed at Stanley Park, and broke ground by starring on CBC Vancouver’s Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies which became the first Canadian television show with a mixed race cast.

In 1955, Collins became the first black woman to host her own television variety show in North America with CBC’s The Eleanor Show. 

Her beauty, style and grace — which earned her comparisons to actress Lena Horne — was an important aspect of her work. Even at 16, when she started singing at an Edmonton restaurant, Collins recalls the wardrobe of black suits and bow ties of her fellow musicians.

With an eye for glamour, Collins started saving for a much-coveted velvet blouse.

“It would take me a couple of years to save up enough, because it certainly wasn’t in the budget of my mother’s,” she said.

She eventually got the blouse, pairing it with a skirt she had hand-sewn, applying the sewing lessons she had taken in school.

“You got to know where you came from, so that you feel better about what you later could do.”

Although The Eleanor Show was short lived, Collins continued to perform on stage and on television. She received many offers to perform in the United States, but she refused, preferring to stay in Canada.

“I haven’t had anything but pure blessings,” she said.

Yet Collins — who was married to her late husband Richard Collins for 70 years — faced tremendous barriers in Canada. When the couple and their four children became the first black family in their Burnaby neighbourhood, they faced a petition from their white neighbours demanding their eviction.

The petition was unsuccessful, but Collins immersed herself in the neighbourhood and her children’s schools, determined to become part of the community’s fabric.

Collins, who still does all her own shopping and cooking, is nowhere near done giving.

“I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets, but I have learned that all you give is all you get,” she sings, trailing off.

“There’s life after 100 … I want to give it all I’ve got.”


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