Every jazz funeral is a drama, a freeze-frame of the city.

The marching band leads the procession of grief to the slow dirges, sorrow songs, and after burial the jazzmen kick into up tempo parade anthems, the soul’s “cutting loose” for the second line of dazzling street dancers.

How did these funerals arise? What do they tell us about the city today?

“This city wears two faces. Just like the Mardi Gras masks, tragedy and comedy.”

– Deb “Big Red” Cotton, Writer and Video Blogger

“The jazz funeral expresses freedom…that rebellious spirit of Congo Square – the same spirit of resistance of the Maroons and Mardi Gras Indians.”

– Dr. Michael White, jazz composer and clarinetist

Educational and Community Screenings

We’re committed to bringing City of a Million Dreams to community groups, universities, colleges, and schools as we also roll out festival screenings, broadcasts, and streaming. These screenings include an in-person or virtual Q&A with members of the COMD team. Contact us for more information or check out our Screening Schedule.

To most people jazz funerals are a buoyant mystery

New Orleans jazz funerals and Sunday second-line parades absorb the pain of death and the legacy of racism, soaring to joyful, transcendent rebirth. But a violent storm and a parade shooting plunge musician Michael White and culture carrier Deb “Big Red” Cotton into a search for the city’s soul.

Why do we dance for the dead?

Deb Cotton’s journey begins, leaving “hard-hearted Hollywood” for New Orleans. As a blogger following the neighborhood club parades, she films life-force rituals with “ a long memory arc,” risen from funerals with music. That’s the tradition carried by Dr. Michael White, famously playing “the widow’s wail” on his reed in slow-tempo marches, then sending up sweet streams for the second-line dancers celebrating the soul’s release.

Deb and Michael take us on a journey into the city’s past.

But when Hurricane Katrina hits, White loses everything in the catastrophic flooding. Michael becomes an Everyman, embodying the resurrection spirit of jazz funerals in his struggle to rebuild. As Cotton’s camera follows second lines in the aching recovery, White searches for his ancestral roots at the dawn of jazz. Stunning sequences of ring dances, the danced-memory of enslaved Africans interweave with the grandeur of European marching bands. With burial pageants a winding mirror on history, the film hits a violent turning point at a parade shooting, sending Deb and Michael into a search for the city’s soul.

Reviews

“Tragedy and comedy, life and death: these are the poles between which the events and people in this film move, with the good and the bad often inseparable.. For anyone who loves the place, this film will enhance your understanding. For anyone curious about New Orleans, it’s a fantastic place to start.”

– Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

“Yes, funerals — as in the famous joint expressions of mourning and celebration that feature “second line” dance marches to mark the joy of a soul’s ascent into heaven. As director Berry shows, those ceremonies have extraordinarily complex roots and meanings. What his documentary does, lovingly and in mesmerizingly watchable fashion, is explore the African American culture from which jazz funerals evolved — and how the funerals epitomize the soul and resilience of the Crescent City perpetually endangered by storms, floods, fires, coastal erosion, and diseases such as Yellow Fever.”

– Quin Hillyer, The Washington Examiner

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