Students at one Surrey school have forged a special bond with a Canadian jazz-music legend who lives nearby, even though the pandemic has prevented an in-person visit.
Guildford-area resident Eleanor Collins, considered Canada’s “first lady of jazz,” is featured on a new Canada Post stamp, revealed Jan. 21.
“A living legend” at age 102, Collins once starred alongside Canada’s top musicians and in myriad television and radio productions, starting in the 1940s, and broke ground as host of a national TV series, “The Eleanor Show,” in 1955.
When Prince Charles Elementary school teacher Stacey Zorn read news about the new stamp in the Now-Leader, she learned more about Collins and then began teaching her students about the singer’s music career.
“The whole school, all 15 divisions, learned about her, even the Kindergarteners. We watched videos and listened to her music,” explained Zorn.
“I grew up in this province and wanted to be a music teacher,” she added, “but I had not heard of her until this stamp came out. She did some amazing things.”
Zorn’s students have learned about jazz music since they returned from Christmas break, and Collins’ story fit well with Black History Month studies this month.
“She’s an important puzzle piece, especially as a person of colour,” Zorn said. “My students have been incredibly excited to learn about her, and they’re impressed by what she did at a time of racism and inequality, all the barriers she broke down.”
The younger students were keen to send cards of congratulations to Collins, and that led to a project by older kids to write letters to the trailblazing jazz singer.
At Zorn’s request, the Now-Leader connected the teacher with Judith Maxie, Collins’ daughter and go-between for such things, who later met with Zorn to collect the handcrafted items for Eleanor to see. Maxie brought gifts for the students, too, including a commemorative Canada Post magazine and a dozen copies of first-day-issue stamps.
The collaboration continued when Collins and Maxie co-wrote a long, detailed letter to the students – full of “incredibly moving” words, Zorn agreed, “and so powerful for the students to hear.”
Maxie says she and her mother have been deeply moved by the kindness of the “amazing” kids at Prince Charles Elementary.
“You have done something really quite wonderful by creating such beautiful cards, letters and messages to Eleanor,” the letter begins. “When I took your treasure trove of gifts to her yesterday and she first laid eyes on them, she was just awestruck and stunned, momentarily speechless by the sheer beauty and bounty of the package.”
Collins went on to name all of the students who had created letters or cards for her, “because each one of you is important and I am grateful to each one of you for your kindness to me,” the letter continues.
“And now each one of you has played a part in my long journey to these 102 years. I can tell you that after a long life it becomes very clear what is truly important, and it may surprise you to know, that it is not the awards or the accolades or money, it is the people who helped make a difference in your life. And today, that is YOU, the students of Prince Charles Elementary School.”
Collins also offered advice to the students, some of whom might now be dreaming about future careers.
“Do hold on to your dreams but don’t be afraid to let them change shape as you keep growing older,” the letter notes. “Keep trying to identify what you feel most passionate about, what turns you on and excites you; what it is you want to do even if no one thanks you or applauds you or pays you.
“Just keep grooming your talents, practice, practice, practice. And there you will find your joy, talent and perhaps eventually even a profession. But don’t be fooled by fame or fortune. Just be the best person you can possibly be and help the most people you can possibly help. In the end, history will decide how they wish to remember you.”
Collins began her singing career at age 16. By 1948, she was ostracized upon moving into one of Burnaby’s predominantly white neighbourhoods.
“She responded by fostering the values of equality and acceptance within her community, and consequently became a civic leader and pioneer in the development of British Columbia’s music industry,” according to a biography of Collins posted on the Order of Canada website (gg.ca).
Collins sang her final concert less than a decade ago, when she was in her mid-90s, and has lived in the Surrey area for more than a quarter-century.
“More people need to know about her,” said Zorn, who now aims to display photos of students with their cards and letters, the Canada Post magazine and other items related to the school’s studies of Collins.
“Once our trophy case is back up, after seisemic upgrading work, we’re going to put some items in there,” she explained.