‘City of a Million Dreams’ Chronicles the Dangers and Mystic Pleasures of Living on the Threshold

In exploring the history and the meaning of jazz funerals, the uniquely New Orleans ritual that transforms a cortège into a celebratory parade, Jason Berry’s documentary reveals a powerful allegory about the spiritual core of America’s most fascinating city.

Courtesy Jason Berry
The antidote, it seems, to our emotional meltdowns over New Orleans being broken is to be back in broken New Orleans. Cause really, once you’ve had a life full of sweet nothing exchanges with total strangers who call you ‘baby;’ spicy seafood feasts at every meal served with wine, rum and whiskey; cottages, cathedrals, and faded saloons with candles and lanterns lighting your way home at night; brilliantly beaded Mardi Gras Indian war-birds; your very own peculiar language filled with phrases like ‘spy boys,’ ‘king cakes,’ ‘Zulus,’ and ‘momma nems;’ brass bands dancing your dead to the other side and a town full of people who will cry with you through the bad times just as hard as they party with you during the good.

“When you’ve got all that, you realize that gutting and repairing 200,000-plus homes, fixing some levees, and rebooting the city’s power system is a hell of a lot easier than trying to recreate all our good stuff someplace else.

“Or worse, trying to do without it.”
Deborah Cotton, “Meltdown Town,” Jan. 6, 2006. Republished in Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina. Edited by Cynthia Joyce, UNO Press. Kindle Edition, 2015.

The great Mark Twain famously declared that the United States had only three real cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. “Everywhere else,” he said, “is Cleveland.” He was only half-joking. There weren’t many of his contemporaries who had seen as much of the nation’s landscape as Twain had, and his enthusiasm for New Orleans has proven to be a gift that keeps on giving for generations of city tourism officials and political leaders. “An American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” he once argued.

Like most visitors to the Big Easy, Twain was also particularly enchanted by the city’s distinctive cemeteries. “When one goes from the levee or the business streets… to a cemetery, he observes to himself that if those people down there would live as neatly while they are alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages in it,” he once wrote. “And besides, their quarter would be the wonder and admiration of the business world.”

Limited edition broadside of The City of the Dead by Walker Percy, Illustrated by Lyn Hill. Lord John Press, 1984.

Decades later, another great Southern writer, Walker Percy, whose book The Moviegoer is alongside John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces as the most essential New Orleans novel of the 20th century, paraphrased Twain in an essay titled “The City of the Dead.” Twain, Percy claimed, “once said that New Orleans had no architecture to speak of except in the cemeteries,” which isn’t entirely precise, but regardless, both men were driving at similar points.

“The cemeteries, true cities of the dead, seem at once livelier and more exotic to the visitor newly arrived, say, from the upper Protestant South where cemeteries are sedate ‘memorial gardens,’ or from New York City, where mile after mile of Queens is strewn with gray stone, a vast gloomy moraine,” Percy wrote. “A New Orleans cemetery is a city in miniature, streets, curbs, iron fences, its tombs above ground—otherwise, the coffins would float out of the ground—little two-story dollhouses complete with doorstep and lintel.”

Of course, Twain and Percy aren’t the only two writers who have been intrigued by the juxtaposition between the banality of the city’s urban built environment (in Percy’s case, the buildings that define its skyline) and the spectacle and ethereal beauty of the world constructed for the dead. To be sure, the contrast isn’t as bright as they present it to be. By focusing on the forgettable architecture of its central business district, known in Twain’s era as the “American Sector,” both men fail to properly account for the vernacular architecture of the Vieux Carre and the vast majority of its residential neighborhoods.

Either way though, architecture only tells part of the story, and the vibrancy and charm of the city’s cemeteries beg larger questions.

According to Terry Teachout, drama critic at the Wall Street Journal and author of the book Pops, an award-winning biography on the life of Louis Armstrong, “the word ‘jazz’ didn’t appear in print with any frequency until March 1913.” Initially, jazz was a term “used by baseball players and sportswriters in California as a synonym for ‘enthusiasm,'” Teachout explained back in 2013. It only became associated with music in 1917 when “a five-piece ragtime combo from New Orleans cut a record whose label identified it as the ‘Original Dixieland Jass Band.'”

City of a Million Dreams, a new documentary directed and produced by the acclaimed writer Jason Berry, surveys the spiritual terrain of New Orleans through the lens of the jazz funeral, a term that refers to a Creole tradition combining the Catholic ritual of the burial procession with the performance of brass band music and celebratory dance.

The term “jazz funeral’ is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “second line,” a New Orleans colloquialism that distinguishes between a funeral procession’s contingent of mourners—that is, the family and close friends of the deceased who comprise the “mainline” of the cortège—and the revelers who follow in binary, symbolic opposition (hence, the “second line”). But recently, the two terms have acquired slightly different meanings. As Dr. Marc T. Gaspard Bolin, an ethnomusicologist who studied New Orleans musical traditions and culture as a graduate student at UCLA, pointed out in his 2021 dissertation “The Second Line: A (Re)Conceptualization of the New Orleans Brass Band Tradition,” the term “second line” is now used more broadly and is “often disembodied from the funeral rites ritual from which [it] originate[s].”

As the film quickly makes clear, the jazz funeral is much more than a quirky local tradition. Indeed, there is perhaps no better illustration of the dialectical tension between the sacred and the profane that has remained at the core of New Orleans identity for more than 300 years.

Increasingly, second lines have become both an instrument for political protest and a way for people to publicly grieve the deaths of famous actors and musicians, regardless of how tenuous their actual connection to New Orleans may be. When the iconic British musician David Bowie died in January of 2016, for example, a second line in the heart of the French Quarter was quickly organized in his honor by members of the band Arcade Fire. Three months later, thousands turned out in the Treme for a second line celebrating the life of the musical superstar Prince. At the tail end of December, a group of Star Wars fans in the Bywater organized a second line for the actress Carrie Fisher, better known for her role as Luke Skywalker’s sister Princess Leia.

City of a Million Dreams— the first documentary to kick off the 2021 New Orleans Film Festival, with a 7 p.m. outdoor screening at the Broadside Theater on Oct. 20 (tickets for the screening as well as for an online streaming version can be purchased here)— considers the questions that have escaped those approaching the subject as a visitor or from the ivory towers of academia. When, why, and how did we begin dancing for the dead? Who, if anyone, determines the authenticity or legitimacy of this ritual? What do jazz funerals tell us about the past, present, and future of New Orleans? Are we celebrating the dead at the expense of the living?

These are an immensely complicated and challenging set of issues, but they are also ones that Berry is uniquely qualified to tackle.

Allow me to briefly digress.

Even if you aren’t a jazz aficionado or a student of Louisiana history, you are almost certainly familiar with Berry’s work. Like Walker Percy, he is sometimes referred to as a “Catholic writer,” though unlike Percy, who wasn’t always comfortable with the label, Berry has approached the subject of the Roman Catholic Church as an investigative journalist. The stories he has told are all true.

Two months ago, the New York Times produced this poignant short documentary film about Berry’s life and career:

Although it may have taken more than a decade for the American and international media to understand the significance and the massive implications of his early investigative reporting on Rev. Gilbert Gauthe (reporting, by the way, that was first published by the then-independently-owned Lafayette alt-weekly The Times of Acadiana), Berry’s extensive research and relentless writing have proven to be critical in contextualizing the magnitude of abuse and demonstrating the existence of a conspiracy among powerful Catholic clergymen and church leaders in its cover-up.

With all of that being said, it’s worth mentioning that Berry’s work in documenting the history, the culture, and the music of New Orleans is every bit as rigorous as his reporting on the Catholic Church.

More than 40 years ago, Berry directed a different documentary on the musical history and culture of New Orleans, Up from the Cradle of Jazz, a title he subsequently appropriated for his 1986 book Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II, which he co-wrote with Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones. The L.A. Times praised the book, which was expanded and republished in 2009, as “a useful and convincing survey… [that] recharges one’s admiration for a community in which music, its performance and appreciation, is handed down from one generation to the next like a precious heirloom.”

Dr. Michael White in “City of a Million Dreams.” Courtesy Jason Berry.

Although Berry started formally working on his new documentary in 2015, he began contemplating and refining its concept way back in 1997, when, with the support of a grant from the Ford Foundation, he helped to develop a video oral history project on jazz funerals for Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive. Four years later, a Guggenheim Fellowship provided him the opportunity to invest a significant amount of time in research, but for various reasons, not the least of which being the catastrophic damage caused by the failure of the federal levee system after Hurricane Katrina and the disruption necessitated during the city’s recovery, Berry decided to put his concept for the film on the back-burner. Crucially though, he continued to collect interviews and video footage of jazz funerals. On a few occasions, when jazz funerals were held to honor someone of significance, he’d even pay out of pocket for a film crew to tag along.

By the time he decided to pick the project back up and begin a fundraising campaign, he was already well into writing a book about the history of New Orleans, which was slated for publication in 2018, right in time for the city’s tricentennial. He borrowed the book’s title from a song by New Orleans Style clarinetist Raymond Burke (to listen, click here), City of a Million Dreams. But his film isn’t exactly an adaptation of his book, which begins at a second line in 2015 celebrating the life of the recently departed musical legend Allen Toussaint and then pivots to present “a parade of vibrant personalities,” led by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the Montreal native, French colonial administrator, and warrior explorer credited with founding the city of New Orleans.

Deborah “Big Red” Cotton receives the Ashley Morris Award at Rising Tide X in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2015. Photo credit: Bart Everson. Image by Lamar White, Jr. | Bayou Brief

One of the “vibrant personalities” featured in the book is the influential jazz clarinetist and historian Dr. Michael White. In the film, Berry steps aside as the narrator and at various points hands the stage over to White, who allowed Berry to chronicle his return to New Orleans in 2006 following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, including the emotional and powerful moment White first re-enters his home and searches for anything still salvageable.

As superb as Berry’s written work on the subject is, the history of New Orleans is arguably best appreciated with the accompaniment of the music of New Orleans. And to best appreciate the music of New Orleans, one must also witness the way it is expressed through dance and publicly performed in parades.

Berry understands this. One of the reasons City of a Million Dreams took a few years to complete is that Berry believed any film about the history of New Orleans jazz funerals had to first immerse the audience in the experience of Congo Square during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For those unfamiliar, Congo Square refers to a swath of land across from the French Quarter in present-day Armstrong Park that once served as a gathering place, every Sunday, for the city’s slave population. It was a tricky proposition, and in the hands of someone oblivious to the inherited trauma of slavery, a re-enactment of Congo Square could easily seem exploitative and demeaning. But the Congo Square of City of a Million Dreams is mesmerizing and vivid.

Congo Square in “City of a Million Dreams.”

The most prominent voice in City of a Million Dreams belongs to the late writer, filmmaker, cultural chronicler, and New Orleans bon vivant Deborah “Big Red” Cotton. Her presence is immediately powerful. Cotton understands how to curate the revelry and guide us through the contradictions and tragedies that are the cause of far too many funerals.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to watch an early version of Berry’s film at the home of a mutual friend in New Orleans. At the time, Berry and his daughter and co-producer Simonette had only just begun screening the film and only for folks vastly more qualified in the moviemaking business than I could ever pretend to be. I understood I couldn’t write about the movie; it wasn’t finished yet. But now that it is, I can finally share the two things that stood out in particular for me.

The film includes a portion of the acceptance speech that Deb Cotton gave after she received the Ashley Morris Award at Rising Tide X, an event that was held on the tenth anniversary of Katrina. I had actually been seated directly behind Cotton that afternoon (and directly in front of Jill Stein, yes that Jill Stein), and I can personally testify that Cotton’s speech, which awed everyone in the audience and moved many to tears, was entirely extemporaneous.

When I watched it again, this time within the context of a film about jazz funerals, I realized that Cotton was, in her own way, putting on a jazz performance. In the early version of the film, I wondered if her story and the example she set for others in the New Orleans community, which Berry later told me he considers to be what Pope Francis means when he refers to “radical mercy,” would be understood by the audience. In the finished version, Cotton is both a moral compass and an anchor of hope.

I imagine most New Orleanians are familiar with Cotton’s work and how she persevered in the wake of horrifying violence; three years ago, the Times-Picayune included her in their series “300 for 300” which honored the 300 most significant figures in the city’s 300-year history. But if you’ve never heard of her before, then I think it’s best to allow her to introduce herself in the film.

The other moment that stood out to me from the screening two years ago occurred a few minutes after the movie ended. A well-dressed, elderly Creole man stood up and began sharing the reasons he was so profoundly grateful for the film, and as he spoke, his eyes welled up with tears and his voice began to tremble. I confess that I had no idea who this man was, but a friend sitting next to me whispered the man’s name to me. “That’s Deacon John,” he told me, a name I recognized of course.

But that’s almost beside the point because he was expressing the same sentiments and emotions that an entire generation of New Orleans musicians would have after seeing City of a Million Dreams. The film was a “masterpiece,” Deacon John declared. Rewatching the funerals for so many of his contemporaries and friends obviously reminded him of the tragedies of so many incredibly talented people. But once he had exhausted his sadness, he began explaining and reminiscing about the music, and in almost an instant, his mood lifted back up.

There weren’t any second lines for Princess Leia or memorial parades for the “no-call” that prevented the New Orleans Saints from advancing to Super Bowl LIII in Berry’s film. These were the funerals for real human beings, people whose connections to the community were deep and profound and who too often were taken senselessly and far too young. When you try to inventory the scale of suffering, it can be overwhelming.

These peculiar traditions are not meant to trivialize death, nor are they intended to paper over grief. Their magic isn’t derived from the mere performance of spectacle but instead comes from our collective ability to conjure up joy and hope from the depths of despair. If there is one overarching lesson to be learned from City of a Million Dreams, it is that for joy and hope to be authentic and meaningful, then grief and despair must be as well.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.