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Eleanor Collins, the first lady of Canadian jazz, dead at 104

Canadian jazz legend Eleanor Collins, who began performing in the 1930s and worked with other greats like Dizzy Gillespie and fellow Canadian Oscar Peterson, has died at the age of 104.

A family member confirmed to CBC News that Collins, known as Canada’s first lady of jazz, died on Sunday.

Collins made her television debut in 1954 on CBC Vancouver’s Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies, the first Canadian television show with a mixed-race cast and the first live music TV show broadcast from Vancouver.

She later starred in The Eleanor Show, becoming the first woman and first Black artist to headline their own national television series.

WATCH | The debut episode of The Eleanor Show: 

The Eleanor Show makes its debut

4 years ago

Duration 2:40

Watch the opening act from the very first Eleanor show on June 12, 1955.

Speaking to CBC News ahead of her 100th birthday, Collins recited lyrics from the Shirley Horn song, Here’s to Life.

“No complaints and no regrets, I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets. But I have learned that all you give is all you get, so give it all you’ve got.”

“I definitely have no regrets,” Collins said of her decades-long career.

Collins was born on Nov. 21, 1919, in Edmonton. Her parents had joined hundreds of Black homesteaders who migrated from Oklahoma and settled on the Prairies. By 15, Collins won a singing contest which led her to sing on radio station CFRN.

By the late 1930s she moved to Vancouver, where she sang on the radio with the gospel group Swing Low Quartet.

In 1942, she married Richard Collins and began a family. They moved to Burnaby, B.C., where they were the first Black family in their neighbourhood. Almost immediately, the white community started a petition to prevent them from living there — but Collins and her family moved in despite the racism they faced. 

Collins began to volunteer at her children’s school and taught music there in an effort to counter the stereotypes her family had to face.

Her actions in the face of racism serve as an example of how to live a life of grace and courage, said Marcus Mosely, a Vancouver-based musician who got to know the singer in her later years.

“To use love and to use engagement … as a way of bridging adversity — I love that about her,” Mosely said.

WATCH | A look back at the life of Eleanor Collins when she turned 100: 

Eleanor Collins on living life to the fullest

4 years ago

Duration 1:07

Songstress Eleanor Collins is turning 100.

In the 1950s, Collins was recording songs with the Ray Norris Quintet and performing in several stage productions. In 1952, she also sang in a concert at Vancouver’s Stanley Park. By this time she was becoming known as Vancouver’s first lady of jazz — and still had a monumental career ahead of her.

Mosely described Collins as a performer with a commanding stage presence. He recalled seeing Collins perform Bein’ Green, a song made famous by Muppet character Kermit the Frog, at a Black History Month concert he helped organize.

“A 95-year-old Black woman standing before hundreds of people … for a Black History Month concert and she chooses to sing the song, It’s Not Easy Being Green,” he said.

“Within a few seconds of her starting — her delivery, her performance — she had the audience in the palm of her hand and you knew you were in the presence of a master.”

In 2014, at the age of 95, she was invested into the Order of Canada for her work. Canada Post unveiled a stamp to honour Collins in 2022.

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

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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