Famous the world over, jazz funerals have origins shrouded in mystery. Filmed over twenty-two years, City of a Million Dreams explores race relations at a tearing time in American society. Burial traditions train a lens on the unique and resilient culture of New Orleans. City of a Million Dreams draws from the 2018 book of the same title by Jason Berry.
Deb Cotton, an African American and observant Jew, leaves “hard-hearted Hollywood” for New Orleans, and becomes a chronicler of the parading clubs spawned by 19th century burial societies. Her zeal for the city grows as she becomes a blogger for Gambit Weekly, adopting the handle “Big Red Cotton.” As Deb explores her adopted culture, Dr. Michael White, a prolific clarinetist and New Orleans native, plays “the widow’s wail” on his clarinet, a cry of lamentation in the funeral marches.
White’s transcendent music also 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.” Risen in the ranks of brass bands, White, too, is on a journey of self-discovery, seeking clues about his ancestor who played at the dawn of jazz. White 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.”