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Jake Clemons takes his uncle Big Man's spot in the E Street band
Clarence Clemons' death in 2011 was a profound loss to Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band family. And an even greater one for his own family.
But for nephew Jake Clemons, it was also a passing of the saxophone-shaped torch.
"Enormously close" to his uncle -- who gave the younger Clemons his first saxophone when he was 10 years old -- Jake has taken his place in the E Street Band and has become, if you will, the Little Big Man. He was initially supposed to just be part of the five-man horn section, but in shorter order he took his uncle's place to Springsteen's right, playing all of the iconic sax parts in The Boss' repertoire along with fresher material from Springsteen's most recent albums.
And Clemons has gradually come to accept that status in the E Street ranks.
"From day one it's always been about the healing process," explains Clemons, 33, who flew home from his own band's European tour to sit by his uncle's bedside in West Palm Beach, Fla. for a week before he died. "It's very, very raw when it begins, and as it continues it gets less raw to the point where you can bear the scar of that loss and celebrate the memory.
"At this point it's something that we can have a really beautiful time with; Clarence is rockin' up there with me every night, and despite the weight of it and the heaviness it's gotten to be more fun and evolved into something more magical. I still get to have that connection wtih my beloved and be with this phenomenal band, and we all kind of share the glory of the memory."
The other E Street Band members, meanwhile, knew Clemons "a long time," according to guitarist Nils Lofgren, which fellow six-stringer Steve Van Zandt says made the transition somewhat easier. "There was a lot of discussion," Van Zandt recalls. "Having two sax players come from the horn section and then go back into the horn section was a major move to take the pressure off what turned out to be Clarence's nephew, which was a nice little bonus.
"But it took the pressure off him and people accepted him immediately and accepted the whole new concept immediately."
Clemons did have a music career of his own before he joined the Springsteen crew. The son of a band leader, he was schooled in John Phillips Sousa marches and gospel music before discovering rock 'n' roll when he was eight years old and started watching MTV. After seeing Springsteen and company play during the Tunnel of Love Express Tour in 1988, he remembers, "something clicked, and I saw my future. I walked out of the stadium with my father and said, 'I know what I want to do. I want to play saxophone.' "
His father insisted on piano first, for which Clemons is "eternally grateful," and his determination and acumen led him to the Virginia Governor's School For the Arts in Norfolk. He played his own music for a time under the moniker Jake Christian, but his solo career really blossomed during the late 00s as he shared stages with the Roots, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and the Swell Season and began to tour in North America and Europe.
"I was just kind of gradually building my own, I guess, house of rock 'n' roll," he says with a laugh. "I was working really hard, writing music constantly and trying to get in front of people and share that experience."
His new EP, "Embracing Light," is an eclectic exposition of rock, jazz, blues and soul influences that Clemons conceived as an introduction to his musical makeup. "I write in just about every style that exists, or every style I'm familiar with," he says. And he's equally concerned about the messages he's exploring in his songs.
"That's something that really has become important to me over the last couple years," Clemons acknowledges. "This record is pretty directly about hope. It's about hope right now. It's about embracing this moment. It's about being alive today.
"I have a philosophy of life that I try to live by, and that when you open your eyes in the morning you're born for the first time and you have to try and live the best life you can, and when you close your eyes at night that's the end, and if you're lucky you get to do it again tomorrow. So, y'know, why have hope for tomorrow? It's important, but why displace that without having hope for today."
And that, he agrees, is something he shares with a certain New Jersey rocker -- and his current employer.
"Bruce has been very, very kind and generous about sharing his music, for one, and his very consistent themes, with everyone," says Clemons, who plays on Springsteen's latest album, "High Hopes," and is playing his own shows whenever breaks in the current E Street touring schedule allow." But even moreso, the sit-down conversations we've been able to have and him just talking me through his experience has just been monumental.
"So having a theme for a record, you really want people to get it. Even if you're saying the same thing over and over again, the most important thing at the end of the day is your voice, what you're saying. I think that's how your mark gets left in time, 'cause otherwise it's just a hit for that day. And just like Bruce, I want it to be more than that."
Jake Clemons performs Tuesday, March 25, at the Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Admission is free as part of the Take a Chance Tuesdays series. Call 724-761-1800 or visit www.theark.org.
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