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Canadian contralto Portia White's life on the stage

The Nova Scotia-born singer's talent put her in the limelight on stages around the world.

Famed singer started out in Nova Scotia, but found the limelight on stages around the world

Portia White has been living in Toronto this past year and tells Tabloid viewers what she's been doing. 2:50

"Portia White, contralto," as she was introduced to the Tabloid audience, was in the studio for a chat about her current work and whereabouts. 

Portia White was featured on a 1999 Canada Post stamp issued to honour Extraordinary Entertainers in a special millennium collection. (Canada Post)

The singer reminded the host of her last appearance with him, which she remembered precisely because that day a new niece was born — the 28th of her family of nieces and nephews.

White was a celebrated international performer by the time she appeared on CBC-TV's Tabloid in November of 1958. She had made her Toronto concert stage debut at the Eaton Auditorium almost two decades earlier. 

White, who was born in Truro, N.S., but raised in Halifax, began her studies at home. When she spoke to Tabloid, she was both teaching and studying in Toronto.

"I did some studying in New York, and at the moment I'm studying here in Toronto — there's no need to go far afield now to study, because we have some of the best singing teachers in the world right here," White said.

White was also performing on Tabloid with the Ron Collier jazz quintet — a departure for the singer who was known for her classical and spiritual music performances. 

'Branching out' into jazz

She talked to CBC Radio about that collaboration, which fans would also see at a Toronto concert the following day.

The singer, known for singing classical and spiritual music, appears with Ron Collier to talk about their upcoming concert - one with a different twist. 4:43

White described two of the spirituals she was going to perform with Collier's quintet, telling CBC Radio "from then on, I'm branching out into several different directions."

Leslie Bell, a musician and arranger who interviewed her on CBC Radio, asked about the purpose of combining the spiritual music with jazz.

"It's not a question of a jazz quintet program with Portia White as guest artist," Bell said.

Portia White performed with the Ron Collier Quintet on CBC-TV's Tabloid. (CBC Archives/Tabloid)

"Actually the idea of Portia White appearing with a jazz quintet is rather a shocking one, unless it's explained," she agreed. "We're tracing the relationship between jazz, as it is known today and the spirituals from which jazz has evolved."

The three discussed the categorization of music as jazz, and as "serious" or "highbrow." 

Bell also asked her about about the connections between jazz and spirituals.

"I think there's no doubt about where the rhythm arose," White said. "I think that the rhythm of the Negro spirituals is the rhythm of the North American continent really, I think that is the music that is native to this continent."

Concert stage 'more respectable'?

Portia White, appearing in the role of Tituba, in her TV dramatic actress debut in CBC's The Crucible, 1959. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Bell reminded them that there was a "moral implication" in the playing of jazz, and "you were delinquent if you played jazz."

"I'm the daughter of a Baptist minister, and when my father knew that I wanted to go on the concert stage, he said: 'Well I don't think that's the kind of life you want to lead,'" White said. 

"The concert stage was much more respectable than I'm sure the jazz field was," she concluded.

White, who was born in 1911, died in Toronto on Feb. 13, 1968. 

That year, George Elliott Clarke was the recipient of the first Portia White Prize, awarded annually since to a Nova Scotian who has achieved "cultural and artistic excellence."