One Hundred Years of Jazz: A conversation with Canada’s First Lady of Jazz, Eleanor Collins, C.M.

One Hundred Years of Jazz: A conversation with Canada’s First Lady of Jazz, Eleanor Collins, C.M.

If you love jazz as much as the OQ Crew does, chances are you’ve come across mid-century singing sensation, Eleanor Collins before. The near centenarian was an integral part of Canada’s jazz movement in the 1950s and 60s, and quickly became known as Canada’s First Lady of Jazz.

Collins was indeed first: her eponymous television series premiered on CBC in 1956, becoming the first nationally broadcast television series with a black host – one year prior to the debut of The Nat King Cole Show.

But that was her day job. Eleanor was also a devoted wife, mother and activist, using her public profile to confront racial injustices and break new ground in the music industry.

Our team was lucky enough to sit down with Eleanor and her daughter, Vancouver-based actor, Judith Maxie, to hear all about Eleanor’s creative vision, and how she’s spent ten decades making that vision a reality.

OQ: First Lady of Jazz is an impressive title; what was it about this style of music that first drew you in?

EC: After the war years, jazz standards were the music of the day and I was especially drawn to the composers and lyricists whose songs created a drama or told a story that suited my approach as an artist and song stylist. Today’s artists, like Canadian-born Zaki Ibrahim, for instance, have transcended the jazz, blues and pop genres and now bring a whole new meaning to the word diversity. The new genre is ‘musical arts’, period!

OQ: You’ve been first in many respects in your life: the first black artist in North America to host her own national  TV show, being a member of one of the first families of colour to move to Burnaby, B.C., and so on. In those moments, did you realize the historical impact you were making in the black community?

EC: When you are busy assuming responsibility and living your life, you have no sense of making a historical impact … certain choices had to be made simply because it was the right thing to do.

OQ: In 2014, you were inducted into The Order of Canada – an immense achievement reflective of your accomplishments in race relations and the music industry. What was it like receiving this honour?

EC: I feel humbled by the blessing of having my life and work publicly acknowledged. I feel very gratified if anything I have done in my lifetime has served to open doors and make things easier for others who’ve followed. It was a grand weekend of events in Ottawa and I was blessed to have my daughter, Judith, along as companion.  

OQ: You recently had your family portraits featured in Catherine Clement’s Exhibition of Yucho Chow, a photographer who captured images of marginalized communities in the first half of the 20th century. How does it feel as an artist to have a fellow creative capture your family in such an intimate way?

EC: The recent Yucho Chow Photographic Exhibit is a lovely example of yet another shared experience with my daughter. While the exhibit included images from my family’s private collection, I was really just there to champion Judith’s collaborative role in helping to curate African Canadian content for the project. She and I are both energized by heritage projects and this particular exhibit was an unearthing of broadly representative communities that Yucho Chow served. It was also deeply moving for me to stand for a present day photo beneath a 1940’s portrait of my father. It was kind of like bringing his spirit into the 21st Century. Our strongest feeling about the revelation of Chow’s hidden photographs is the degree to which they acknowledge the commonality of so many intersecting community histories.  

OQ: Creating and sharing your own vision in arts and entertainment has been your life's work; how would you say you've managed to make your creative vision a reality and what advice would you give those starting off in their creative fields?

EC: When I think back on my own time in the music arena, I found a home in the jazz, blues and pop music of that era. Find what it is you love to do and become a master at it; then bloom where you are planted. Don’t forget to water with plenty of laughter, patience and love.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photography:  Garfield James, Lori Vance