Jazz In The Mainstream: Boardwalk Empire Season 5 “The Good Listener”

By Sam Griffith

This post is a continuation of a series of posts based on the use of music in Boardwalk Empire’s final season. Empire frequently uses jazz to set moods, provide humor and serve as underscoring. In this episode, we have a little music and a lot of radio.


The music in this episode was overshadowed by the radio.  In this episode, we see many characters listening to the radio, in a variety of situations. The radio is used as a therapeutic device, shown during the first scene in the mental hospital and as an escape for Sigrid. Although we don’t see a radio, much of the under-scoring in the brothel scenes seems like it is being played from a radio. Eli, during a rather heartbreaking moment, is listening to some zany family radio-programming, “America’s Favorite Family” while likely reflecting on the current status of his own family.

One of the most stellar aspects of Boardwalk Empire is that its characters are frequently enjoying music, this episode being no different. When listening, studying and analyzing early jazz, it is important to consider the radio or commercial element to early recordings. Zany, off-beat or bizarre tracks – such as “Barnyard Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, have some comedic elements that might make them more enjoyable when consumed only via radio. Frequently, early jazz recordings have some sort of wacky vocal, bizarre instrumental “tricks” or catchy riff to make them more appealing via radio. In this episode, Empire does an effective job of showing how its characters, all at differing stages, use the radio.


In regards to actual jazz, well, this episode only has a few interesting moments. Any scene that appears to be set in Chicago or New York, is typically underscored with some sort of Dance Band-inspired music. This is a common technique for Empire, and used frequently in the previous episode to help establish the location of each character.

Several classic jazz compositions find their way into this episode, most notably an updated version of “Black and Tan Fantasy” by Duke Ellington. This particular work is one of Ellington’s most famous, although it is not performed live as much as many of his other pieces. This piece is heard during a speech from a new character, Eliot Ness. In this scene, Ness is holding a press conference declaring his stance on law enforcement and pursuing criminals. The soundtrack could be providing some foreshadowing clues, as “Black and Tan Fantasy” is inspiried by/ends with a funeral march. Perhaps Ness will be sleeping with the fishes.

During an early scene, Nucky is contemplating the future and is conflicted about what he should do. This scene is scored with “Creole Love Call”, another Ellington classic. In this case, this track doesn’t provide any plot-clues, but does help convey Nucky’s frustrations.


As I mentioned in the beginning, there isn’t to much music in this particular episode of any significance.  A few other things I found interesting during the episode:

  • The Brothel scenes are scored with jazz. I will have to see if this trend continues (or exists in previous episodes).
  • Gillian mentions that she performed with Paul Whiteman!
  • The commodore sings “pop” songs on the boardwalk. During one of the “flash-backs” we see the commodore singing to some ladies on the boardwalk. He is singing some early popular songs (probably from some sort of musical or reviue). Another way early jazz was consumed!

Here is a link to the actual music being played, in addition to a link to bandleader Vince Giordano, whose groups play the majority of jazz in the show.

Jazz In The Mainstream analyzes moments where jazz is found in Todays media and looks for any significance. See what Sam does at samuelgriffith.com



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