Jazz In the Mainstream: Boardwalk Empire Season 5 “Golden Days for Boys and Girls”


By Sam Griffith

HBO does a lot for jazz. Two of their current shows, Treme and Boardwalk Empire have a strong jazz component. Empire’s newest season began last night, and I thought it would be interesting to dig into the music used in each episode of this final season.

Throughout the first four seasons, Empire has featured “live jazz musicians” performing for various celebrations and as club entertainment. Many of these performances seem authentic and are newer renditions (not newer interpretations thought!) of music that was popular in the 1920s-30s. I have found this element to be refreshing both as a TV viewer and a jazz-music listener. The music in Empire is selected very carefully and purposefully and is refreshing for a binge-watching TV-aholic like myself.  Frequently live musicians are shown performing, augmenting various parties or events. This helps to accurately depict the environment in which jazz musicians performed in during the height of early jazz. It is shows HOW music was consumed during these times. A live band was very necessarily to throw a party. Not all of the music is performed “live”, and the show does have a large amount of underscoring but it is all very successful in setting an appropriate mood.

In this episode, each scene is set with a different style of music. This helps create a unique mood for each scene, and in some cases provides some additional symbolism. In Episode 1 of Season 5, “Golden Days for Boys and Girls’, we hear jazz music (and some precursors to jazz) used quite effectively.


Early in the episode, there is a military brass band playing “Nymphalin” by John Phillip Sousa. The marches of Sousa were performed frequently by early New Orleans brass bands. The forms utilized in these marches also were the basis of many early jazz compositions.


There are several scenes in Havana, Cuba. These scenes are scored with traditional cuban music played in both traditional, and jazz influenced contexts. “The Peanut Vendor” is one the first songs we hear, and has a very important place in the jazz canon. Adapted and arranged by many jazz musicians, “Peanut Vendor’ is a song that many musicians have played or will play throughout their career. The arrangement used in this episode, like most, features a trumpet playing the melody.


During the scenes with Chalky White, several work, or traditional, songs are sung by the prisoners. Similar to the Sousa marches used prior, work songs have a significant role in the development of early jazz. These songs are connected to the development of early (or rural) blues styles and provided the framework for some improvisation (and composition) structures used in early jazz.


The New York scenes are scored with vocal, dance-band styled arrangements of two famous show-tunes, “Out of Nowhere” and “Blue Heaven”. Each of these songs have unique roles that transcend being background music. “Out of Nowhere” is played when Joe Masseria shows up for the meet with Lucky Luciano. Later in the episode, we return to the meet between these two and the scene is scored with “My Blue Heaven”. We return to “Out of Nowhere” later in the episode during Lucky’s intitiaion.  Without spoiling anything, the selections of these standards appropriately fit the transgressions of the events that occur between Masseria and Lucky. Furthermore they have a dark-comedic effect in there historically accurate, but slightly hokey, arrangements and symbolism.


Here are some additional resources for more about the music and musicians used in Empire.

Jazz makes appearances regularly in modern media. As television shows, movies or other media showcase jazz, we will highlight, analyze and discuss them. Visit samuelgriffith.com for more about what I do on a day-to-day basis.



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