Eleanor Collins has been referred to as “Canada’s First Lady of Jazz.” She worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and has been compared to such greats as Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. A singer, an actress and a performer, her storied life and career are an important part of both British Columbia’s artistic and social history.
She was born Elnora Ruth Proctor in Edmonton, Alberta in November of 1919. Her parents were part of the migration of the more than 1,000 Black Oklahoman homesteaders who had come to the Canadian prairies to settle vast swaths of untamed land. A turn-of-the-century newspaper advertisement attracted many individuals and families who purchased large acreages for mere dollars.
Aside from being industrious workers, Eleanor’s family was a musical one. The Proctors regularly spent time together singing and creating music, namely hymns and other religious songs. Such exposure would be the basis for young Eleanor’s musicality. This, paired with a natural talent and a keen ear, would provide a foundation for her life’s work.
Eventually, Eleanor would move to British Columbia, settling in Vancouver. There, she would meet and marry her husband of 70 years, Richard Collins and the two would have four children together: Rick, Judith, Barry and Tom. While Eleanor spent several years focusing on her family life, by the 1940s she had begun eking out a singing career for herself.
She would work for CBC Radio on a number of projects, including singing in the Swing Low Quartette. The group was composed of two friends, as well as Eleanor’s sister, Ruby Sneed--a musical virtuoso in her own right. She would work with CBC studio musician, Ray Norris, and act in various theatre productions. By the mid-50s, would be featured in Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies, a musical variety production significant for being the first Canadian television show to feature a mixed-race cast.
While racial inequality may have been somewhat less turbulent than in the United States at the time, prejudice and injustice were still an undeniable reality in Canada. For example, the final racially segregated schools in Ontario and Nova Scotia closed in 1965 and 1983 respectively and although British Columbia was not among the provinces to outlaw integrated schools, a climate of racism still existed.
The Collins family would become the first Black residents of their Burnaby neighbourhood and were unfortunately (but not surprisingly) met with prejudicial attitudes. Apparently, neighbours petitioned to have them expelled from the area. The movement was unsuccessful as Eleanor sought to engage herself in the community, getting to know those she lived amongst--a noble endeavour, but unfortunate in its necessity.
In such an era, the accomplishments of Eleanor Collins were all the more meaningful. She would go on to star in her own CBC showcase, The Eleanor Show in 1954, renewed a decade later as Eleanor. Hosting and performing in her own national series--named for her nonetheless--was extraordinary. The show marked the first occurrence of a North American musician of colour to do so. Ultimately she would appear in countless specials and series, becoming a veritable jazz celebrity.
Footage of Collins’ performances highlight her talent as an artist and make obvious the reason for her popularity. Her voice is beguiling, powerful, but full of nuance and emotion. She is magnetic, commanding any stage she is on and it seems she performs just as much for the audience as for herself. Confident, elegant and spirited, it’s clear she loves what she does.
It’s said that over the years she received many impressive offers to work in the United States, but preferred to stay in Canada, the country her parents had chosen to make home decades earlier. And what a gift it was, to entertain Canadian audiences, to support the country’s musical and artistic scene, to add such beautiful and valuable work to the national arts canon. In 2014, she would receive the Order of Canada, one of many awards that would recognize her contribution to Canadian culture and the art of jazz.
In 2019, Eleanor Collins celebrated her 100th birthday and in an interview with CBC recounts her career and reflects upon reaching centenarian status. Kind, poised and appearing to be half her age, she states that her life has been “made of music”--perhaps an understatement for a woman who has moved and delighted audiences for the better part of her 100 years.