“The metaphor slowly came to me that the ring dances of Africa and the linear processions of the European bands signaled the coming together of the ring and the line. And to me that image, the fusion of the ring and the line, of Africa and Europe, defines the cultural essence of New Orleans.” -Jason Berry
Among the many films to be screened at the 2021 New Orleans Film Festival is City of a Million Dreams, a documentary by that examines the evolution of the jazz funeral tradition in New Orleans. Through vintage photos and archival films, historical re-creations and filming of modern-day jazz funerals, the film traces the evolution of the tradition—and New Orleans itself— from the late 18th century to today. From the African rhythms and ring dances of Congo Square to the influence of European marching bands and Sicilian brass bands—along with early 20th-century jazz musicians—to the present-day’s rollicking processions, this epic documentary shows the cultural memory of Black New Orleans and rituals of resilience as never before.
The project, which includes a companion book published under the same title in 2018, was the culmination of 25 years of extensive research and tenacity by investigative reporter, author and filmmaker Jason Berry. He spoke with OffBeat about the circuitous journey from initial concept to the big-screen premiere for a film that took many unexpected turns, including the upheaval of Hurricane Katrina, coverage of the Catholic Church abuse crisis, the unexpected death of a protagonist in the documentary, and, most recently, the pandemic.
You are a native New Orleanian? When did you attend your first jazz funeral?
The first jazz funeral I went to was in 1973. It was for De De Pierce, the grand old man of Preservation Hall, a pianist. It was at Corpus Christi Church. I remember I had seen him before, but I didn’t really know him other than as a spectator. I remember standing outside on the sidewalk watching the coffin come out and the musicians put their instruments up, almost like a military unit putting up swords. The sun was coming down and dancing off the saxophones and the trumpets and the clarinets. It was one of the most beautiful spectacles I’d ever seen. I was mesmerized by it. Then I followed the procession as they put the coffin into the limousine. Then the band moved out. I was walking with the crowd and then they turned on the uptempo music and people danced the soul away.