New Film Offers a Portrait of New Orleans, Told Through its Unique Jazz Funerals

Members of the Original Big 7 social aid and pleasure club second-line in a scene from director Jason Berry's 2021 jazz funeral documentary "City of a Million Dreams." Courtesy photo

(RNS) — Three decades ago, Jason Berry earned his place in journalism history by breaking the story of the sexual abuse and coverup scandal in the Catholic church. But as much as the longtime New Orleans freelancer has written about the scandal over the years, his passion has been for his native city and its music.

Three years ago Berry published "City of a Million Dreams," a 300-year soup-to-nuts history of The Big Easy, and this fall he's produced a film of the same name, subtitled "Parading for the Dead in New Orleans," a portrait of the city as seen through its unique jazz funeral parades.

Just as Black musicians created jazz by combining European and African instruments and musical forms, so Black residents of New Orleans seized on European-style funeral processions and made them their own.

Traditionally, the funeral cortege would march to a cemetery with a brass band playing slow dirges. After interment, the music would turn up the tempo to celebrate the soul's release from its earthly trammels.

The band would then lead a "cutting loose" parade that featured "second liners" dancing their way back to town in celebration of the life of the deceased. The second line has its roots in the African dancing that took place in the city's fabled Congo Square, where enslaved people were allowed to gather on Sundays.

These days, with the growth of the city sometimes creating long distances from church or mortuary to cemetery, the shift from slow to fast music takes place without interment. The music itself marks the release. 

Catholic, Baptist, whatever, these jazz funerals know no sectarian boundaries. You might call them the civil religion of New Orleans' souls.

While "City of a Million Dreams" documents an institution and its history, it focuses on the personal stories of musicologist and outstanding local clarinetist Dr. Michael White and Deborah Cotton, a Jewish person of color from San Francisco who fell in love with the city and became the parades' foremost videographer. Their stories are inspiring and, in different ways, heartbreaking.

At a moment in American society when cultural appropriation can be considered a capital offense, the film pushes in the opposite direction.

"New Orleans is, you know, this space where so much mixing happens and it's a gumbo," said Black choreographer Monique Moss, who recreated Congo Square dance sequences for the film, after a recent screening. 

"If there were to be any pushback against Jason being a European male approaching a subject that appears to be African based, if you watch the film three times in three days like I did, then you get a much clearer understanding that he has just as much of a right to speak on this culture as anyone," she continued.

"There are people from various cultures, who have contributed to New Orleans culture, and so this is one of the reasons why I felt completely okay with joining him in this incredible venture," she said.

"City of a Million Dreams" is currently being shown at the New Orleans Film Festival, which is streaming it for $10 through Nov. 22. Check it out.

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with


more from IFYC

Join IFYC on February 7 at 10 AM CT for an important conversation with Black thought-leaders, activists, and organizers engaged in on-the-ground efforts to destigmatize HIV and eradicate the virus.
The metaverse has dramatic implications that should make all of us sit up, lean in, and claim our role in shaping the worlds within the world that is being created.  
A chance encounter with an army chaplain put Colonel Khallid Shabazz's military career on a different path.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who survived a hostage-taking at his synagogue last Saturday, gave the closing remarks at an online White House briefing Friday, with an impassioned plea for civility.
Rather than focusing on canonical doctrines, a workshop trains educators to teach “lived religion” -- all the creative things that people do with their traditions.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, described as 'the second most famous Buddhist in the world, after the Dalai Lama,' by one expert, founded a worldwide network of monastic centers. He once said: "My life is my teaching. My life is my message.”
Many content creators use their platforms to build community beyond their brick-and-mortar congregations, to dispel myths, break stereotypes and invite people from diverse faiths to get a glimpse into their lives.
IFYC's innovative online learning experience, #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online, offers lessons on how to approach others online in a way that leads to building bridges.
Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, the person who nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
What Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught me about the power of mindful breathing through art.
A scholar of democratic virtues explains why Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on hope are relevant today.
From covering spirituality in Silicon Valley to writing an online newsletter about her own journey to Judaism, reporter Nellie Bowles keeps finding innovative ways to reflect on religion and technology.
Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.
At the request of his editors at Religion News Service, Omar Suleiman writes about waiting with hostages’ families.
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, the PNBC leaders said they plan to lobby Congress in March and register voters weekly in their congregations and communities.
King’s exasperation at self-satisfied white Christians holds up a mirror that is still painfully accurate today.
A day before the U.S. Senate was expected to take up significant legislation on voting rights that is looking likely to fail, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son condemned federal lawmakers over their inaction.
The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, is particularly well connected to the larger interfaith community and on good terms with many Muslim leaders.
For Martin Luther King Day, an interfaith panel reflects on the sacredness of the vote and the legacy of Reverend King.
In his new book, Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer reexamines the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel and finds lessons for interfaith political activism today.
King drew criticism from Billy Graham, who told journalists that he thought King was wrong to link anti-war efforts with the civil rights movement.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.