Vancouver's 'First Lady of Jazz' still going strong at 99

Renowned Vancouver vocalist Eleanor Collins is a television and radio pioneer. She turned 99 this week.

Renowned Vancouver vocalist Eleanor Collins is a television and radio pioneer

Eleanor Collins was the first black artist in North America to have their own nationally broadcast television show. (Franz Lindner/CBC)

When it comes to jazz, Vancouver may not be New Orleans, or New York, or even New Hampshire for that matter.

Yet Vancouverites can claim a significant pioneer of musical and television history who saw her career flourish here and who chose to remain despite the siren call of south-of-the-border suitors.

The B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame star belonging to Eleanor Collins. (Judith Maxie)

Eleanor Collins, Vancouver's First Lady of Jazz, turned 99 this week.

Among a lengthy list of accolades is the Order of Canada, in which she was commended for her "pioneering achievements as a jazz vocalist, and for breaking down barriers and fostering race relations in the mid-20th Century."

In 1955 — over a year before the Nat King Cole TV show aired in the U.S. — Collins became Canada's first woman, and North America's first person of colour, to have their own nationally broadcast television show on CBUT (CBC Vancouver).

A portrait of musical artist Eleanor Collins. (Franz Lindner/CBC)

When asked about the significance of breaking the colour barrier in 1950's television, she responded with typical humility.

"I don't think I was aware, completely, how different it was. I had no idea. I just came and did the things I thought I could do," Collins told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"Many years later they say that was, for the time, a very good job that you did."

Eleanor Collins, Vancouver jazz great, prepares for an episode of 'The Eleanor Show'. (CBC)

Initially ostracized

But recognition and reward did not come immediately — nor easily — for Collins in 1940's Vancouver. 

When the Collins family — Collins, her husband of 70 years Richard, and their four children — moved into an all-white area of Burnaby, they weren't exactly welcomed.

In fact, neighbours set up a petition calling for them to leave.

The Collins family settled in an all-white neighbourhood in Burnaby in the 1940's. (Franz Lindner/CBC)

Collins took it in stride. With patience and good humour, she chipped away at the resistance by participating in community events and establishing good relations with her neighbours. 

Recalling the trials that her mother faced in the heavily segregated U.S. of the early 20th century, Collins shrugs at her own obstacles.

"My mother moved from the states where they were being very oppressed, to Canada, to make it her home. And she did that [facing] great obstacles. I mean, I have done nothing compared to what she did." 

A vibrant jazz community

Mingling with Vancouver's top musicians of the time, like Chris Gage, Lance Harrison, Doug Parker and Dave Robbins, Collins' career blossomed. She sang spiritual hymns with The Swing Low Quartet, where she caught the ear of CBC Radio studio musician Ray Norris.

"Even though they were spirituals, he said 'Well do you know anything else?' I said, 'I sing one or two songs I think I know,'" recalled Collins with a chuckle.

"And so he said, 'Come on in, we're going to do a show right now.'"

That opportunity led to The Eleanor Show, a groundbreaking event in television history.

Eleanor Collins sings with some of Vancouver's greatest jazz musicians, February 11, 1958. (Alvin Armstrong/CBC)
Eleanor Collins was a mainstay on CBC radio and television in the 1950's, 60's and beyond. (Alvin Armstrong/CBC)

As her success grew, Collins turned down numerous invitations to travel and perform at American venues, preferring to stay at home with her family.

Eleanor Collins was married to Richard (Dick) Collins for 70 years. They had four children. (Franz Lindner/CBC)

The reason she hangs around

With the century mark just around the corner, Collins lives independently in the Vancouver area, with the occasional performance scattered throughout her calendar. This week, however, is given over to fielding the phone calls and birthday wishes pouring in from family and loved ones.

Eleanor Collins, shown here at age 95, reflects on a distinguished career in the Vancouver jazz scene. (Ghassan Shanti)

Collins said she takes joy in simple things, like food, family and keeping up with her favourite TV shows. She particularly likes the dance competition show, So You Think You Can Dance.

"I love to see the young people in their eagerness. It's like seeing fresh new leaves on a tree. I'm always wanting to encourage them."

On settling into a role of elder statesperson, Collins reflects: "I guess I am the oldest one left in the tribe. It's time for me to share my story and hope it inspires others."

"So I guess that's the reason I've been hanging around."

WATCH a birthday tribute to Eleanor Collins:

Eleanor Collins reflects on her storied career as a singer and performer. 1:37

With files from On the Coast

About the Author

Christian Amundson

Christian Amundson is a video producer with CBC News Vancouver.