Famous all over the world, jazz funerals are emblematic of the unique and resilient culture of New Orleans, but their origins are shrouded in mystery. Filmed over 22 years, CITY OF A MILLION DREAMS draws from the 2018 book of the same title by Jason Berry and explores race relations at a polarising time in American society.
Deb Cotton, a woman with an African American and Jewish heritage, leaves “hard-hearted Hollywood” for New Orleans and becomes a chronicler of the parading clubs whose roots lie in 19th-century burial societies. Her zeal for the city grows as she becomes a blogger for Gambit Weekly under the pen name Big Red Cotton.
As Deb explores her adopted culture, Dr. Michael White, a clarinetist, and New Orleans native, plays “The Widow’s Wail”, a cry of lamentation, in the funeral marches. His transcendent music includes joyous peals for the soul’s cutting-loose, which happens when the band leaves the cemetery, followed by dancers in what New Orleanians call “the second line”.
Raised amongst the ranks of brass bands, White, too, is on a journey of self-discovery, seeking clues about an ancestor who played at the dawn of jazz. He says of jazz funerals: “For someone dealing with American racism and trying to figure out your place in this life…you can be transformed into another world that really sets you free.”