New film ‘City of a Million Dreams’ documents Jewish chroniclers of ‘second line’ and jazz funeral culture
By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
When the new documentary film “City of a Million Dream” bows this weekend at the New Orleans Film Festival, it will be another stop on the festival tour for producers Jason Berry, Simonette Berry and Tim Watson, but it will be the stop that means the most to them. The film, some 25 years in the making, according to Jason Berry, arrives three years after his release of a book of the same title, which details the history of the “second line” culture and the traditional jazz funerals for which New Orleans is famous.
Unseen for the most part on screen were two of the largest chroniclers of jazz funerals and second line culture – Jules Cahn and Deborah “Big Red” Cotton – both Jewish and both in love with the city’s largely undocumented music culture.
Cahn began shooting 16-millimeter films of jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians and second line marching groups during the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. After his death, his films and photos were donated to The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) and much of his original materials were transferred to digital and then retransferred to a better definition by HBO when it was airing the series “Treme” several years ago.
“The film unfolds through the experience of people who are part of the culture,” explained Jason Berry, who shot much of the jazz funeral footage himself. While Cotton does appear in the film, Cahn does not.
“I think Jules would like the footage that we shot and kinda give us a pat on the back for that,” Berry continued. “I think he would be very pleased to see the way that Tim Watson, the co-producer along with my daughter Simonette, edited the film.”
Berry added that Watson spent months at THNOC reviewing footage that had been viewed previously and indexed by an assistant, Marcelle Olivier.
Watson gained his appreciation for the New Orleans Jewish community while working on an earlier film detailing Jewish communities across the South titled “Shalom Y’All.” But he was unprepared for the depth of the materials for what he found in Cahn’s films and photos at the THNOC.
First of all, for someone who was not a filmmaker to shoot as much 16-millimeter on a subject was a rarity, Watson acknowledged. “It was used professionally for films – independent films mostly,” he said. “For a consumer person to shoot so much of it – it was expensive to use – it was an amazing resource.”
During one early scene in the movie, Michael White, the jazz clarinetist whose voice is used as a central character in the film, speaks about one of his family ancestors, “Papa John” Joseph, who had interacted with Louis Armstrong and other early jazz practitioners. Miraculously, Cahn’s films added to White’s recollections.
“When we found an entire roll of his (Joseph’s) birthday party and footage of his funeral, that was a find because it brought Michael’s words about Papa John to life,” Watson exclaimed. “We were overjoyed to find that.”
According to his son Richard, Cahn was introduced to jazz funerals and second line parades through a housekeeper who took him to observe them when he was just a boy living on Broadway in the University section of the city.
“The footage is shot so lovingly and my guess is he fell in love with New Orleans and second line culture,” Watson noted. “Thank goodness he did.”
“Deb” Cotton, as her friends called her, was another integral player, whose work and life became a central part of “City of a Million Dreams,” when she was hired to become an advisory producer on the film. Cotton had been a longtime blogger for Gambit Magazine on second line culture and wrote a book based on her blog entries titled “Notes from New Orleans.”
Jason Berry recognized her worth to the project because of her book, but her love of the city and its music culture became even more important to the film and helped shape its final form when she succumbed in 2017 to injuries she had suffered at a shooting on Mother’s Day four years earlier.
Cotton gave the Berrys and Watson the rights to her films. She had been working through conversations with them and had done some interviews with them, which were to lead up to an on-camera recording session. Unfortunately, she became ill and was in and out of the hospital a few days later before she suddenly died.
“I did not know that she was that ill,” Jason Berry stated. “After her death, we were devastated. We realized immediately that we had to film her funeral – we owed that to her. And then, thinking more deeply, we had to figure out a way to make her central to this story, to this visual narrative.”
Both Berrys and Watson edited the film to include more of her story. “The film unfolds through the experience of people who are part of the culture,” Jason Berry said. Cotton’s story with narration by her friend Andrea Queeley, adds an additional layer of Jewish connectivity – the unlikely act Cotton gave in forgiving her attackers, those that ultimately deprived her of her life.
“I was really struck by her forgiveness and atonement,” Jason Berry said, reflecting on her appeal at their sentencing. “Her words were just so striking: ‘I believe that you have value.'”
A friend of Cotton’s, Linda Usdin, was with her at her bedside when she died. In the film, she credits her actions with her Jewish spirituality and likens it to the concept of “repairing the world” or “tikkun olam.”
“Her spiritual side was a very important part of her life,” Usdin considered. “Deb was a very curious person in terms of spirituality. She studied a lot of different spiritual traditions in her life, but because her mother was Jewish, she especially delved into Judaism. She was someone who had a very stong connection to her spiritual side.”
Cotton, who was reared in Texas, came to New Orleans and eventually decided it was where she needed to be. “She also was someone who felt being connected to community was very important to her life,” Usdin added. “So, she was connected to the second line community and she really wanted to find a Jewish spiritual home when she came here.”
“City of a Million Dreams” is streaming now and showing next Friday, November 11 at the AMC Elmwood Theater as part of the New Orleans Film Festival.