Why do we dance for the dead?

To most people, jazz funerals are a mystery.

In 2005, writer and videographer Deb Cotton leaves “hard-hearted Hollywood” for New Orleans, and becomes a chronicler of the parading club culture spawned by the legacy of funerals with music. This tradition is carried by the prolific clarinetist Michael White, renowned for playing “the widow’s wail” in sorrowful dirges. When Hurricane Katrina hits, White loses everything in the catastrophic flooding. In his struggle to rebuild, White becomes an everyman, embodying the resurrection spirit of jazz funerals.

Deb and Michael take us on a journey into the city’s past, searching for answers in the face of tragedies both present and past.

As Deb follows the parading culture through the aching recovery, Michael explores his ancestral roots in the dawn of jazz. The danced-memory of enslaved Africans charges a reimagining of antebellum Congo Square, juxtaposed with the grandeur of European marching bands. With burial pageants as a mirror on the city’s history, the film hits a violent turning point at a parade shooting, plunging Deb and Michael into a search for the city’s soul.

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

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“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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