Jazz In The Mainstream: Boardwalk Empire Season 5 “What Jesus Said”

By Sam Griffith

Last nights episode, “What Jesus Said” provided us even more ideas about the role of music in this show, although it did not feature a lot of music. Silence was used a lot, and quite effectively. In addition to silence, we were also introduced to another significant component to early jazz/early popular music – the solo piano.


In early jazz, the piano is important both as a solo instrument and as a supporting one. Ragtime, considered by many as jazz’s primary precursor, was created as a piano-only music (until it was eventually orchestrated for larger ensembles twenty years later). Jelly Roll Morton, self-proclaimed jazz inventor and an early-jazz pianist, was one of the first to incorporate the piano in early-jazz ensembles.

Up to this point in Season 5, we have had very little of the piano as a supportive instrument, and no solo piano. Much of the music we hear imitates the New Orleans/Chicago styles made famous by artists like “King” Joe Oliver and Kid Ory. Because this music comes from the Military Brass Band tradition, the use of piano was not as prominent as one might think. The level of detail in the scoring of this show is fantastic, and up to this point the musical direction has focused on the instrumental performances, with little piano support.

In this episode, we finally get a bit of solo piano. Early in the episode, during a flashback when kid-Nucky is looking at the beach, we have some underscoring of a solo piano piece. In a great transition, the solo piano music turns into a rehearsal piece for the Burlesque show happening at club in the present. In this moment, two great things happen

1) solo piano, and

2) a solo piano transition from the past to the future.

One of the few constants from 19th century music to 20th century music is the solo piano tradition, and using it to transition time periods is quite effective. A “live” pianist is playing during the rehearsal, sticking to Empire’s historical accuracy.


Watching this show with a focus on the music can be frustrating in episodes like this, because there isn’t a ton of music to dig into. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the role music can have in terms of providing some level of dark humor or foreshadowing.  Other times, the scoring can be very effective in setting the mood. In this episode, silence does an amazing job of setting the mood, specifically in the house scenes with Chalky.

As a jazz musician, one of the lessons you learn is the effectiveness of space (and/or silence) in a solo. Miles Davis and pianist Ahmad Jamal are two soloists who use space in a significant and purposeful way. During an improvisation, space can effective create tension and a sense of “what’s next”, keeping the listener on edge by delaying the next phrase a few seconds. The scenes with Chalky are effectively “underscored with silence” to help create a similar level of tension.


Another moment that stood out in last nights episode is the scene with Nucky and Sue. In this scene we have underscoring transition into a significant part of the scene. The scene begins with some early-jazz inspired music underscoring, until Sue mentions that she likes the song, which happens to be “Happy Days Are Here Again”, an early-pop song. At this point, Nucky holds the phone up so that she can hear the music while Nucky sorts through his mail. Two great things about this scene:

1) Song selection – “Happy Days Are Here Again” seems like the most appropriate selection when dealing with an problems from the past!

2) The inclusion of jazz/early-pop inspired music as a part of the scene. The audiences initial reaction is the composition is underscoring, but like the early piano scenes, the music transitions into a significant part of the scene and is actually being heard by Nucky (and eventually Sue).


There are a few other instances (on continuing themes) with some of the music in this episode. The scenes shot in New York are underscored with early jazz. Another Duke Ellington classic is reinterpreted by Vince Giordano (The Mooche – also an ironic song choice because of the character it portrays!). There is also a full early jazz band playing for the burlesque show although I’m not sure if they are actual visible in the scene.

Here is a link to the music used in this episode:


When not watching Boardwalk Empire, Sam is directing Jazz Ensembles at the University of California, Davis. Find out more about him at samuelgriffith.com


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