ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Jake Clemons wants everyone to know this: He isn’t trying to replace his uncle, Clarence Clemons, by taking over as saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. The iconic Big Man died in 2011.
“I’m very careful with that notion,” Clemons said in a phone call. “I in no way feel, expect or hope to have replaced Clarence. That’s not a word that I would ever use. For me, it’s filling the role from a place of need.
“Clarence’s mission, as the job was communicated to me, was just to bring spirit, love and joy to the world. And that voice doesn’t stop, you know? I mean, I feel he was the flag man in the army, waving that flag.”
In addition to having his own mission in the E Street Band, Clemons also has established himself as a musician of note outside it, with his own band.
While Clemons might not feel he’s a worthy replacement for his uncle, who played nearly 40 years with Springsteen, his joining the band made perfect sense when Springsteen announced it a month after Clarence died of complications from a stroke at age 69.
Clemons, 36, says The E Street Band had long been like a family to him, and his uncle a musical mentor and more.
“Clarence and I were very, very, very close,” he said. “I mean, he was a father figure to me, a best friend, and our lives were very much intertwined. I spent a lot of time on the tour. … My earliest memories are being around those guys.”
Clemons grew up as the son of a Marine Corps band director and attended the Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts to study jazz performance after seeing his uncle play the sax. Clarence got him his first paid gig: playing alongside Clarence at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, when Jake was just 16.
“I didn’t have a bigger supporter for my solo career than Clarence. He would have interviews regarding his own stuff – his book, or the E Street Band – and he would always throw in a comment like, ‘You gotta hear my nephew,’ ” Clemons said, laughing. “I mean, I would be sitting around with him sometimes and hear him say that.”
The younger Clemons occasionally sat in with the E Street Band and later played with The Roots, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Will Smith, The Israelites and The Swell Season.
“I’ve just followed the river of dreams, if you will,” Clemons said with a laugh. “And played alongside of some really amazing people. And people have been very generous in providing the opportunities for me to get up on stage.”
He said the conversation with Springsteen about joining the E Street Band “was all just a natural conversation. Bruce always gave honor and respect and took care of the people that love Clarence.”
Clemons joined the band for its tour to support the album “Wrecking Ball,” which was released two months after Clarence’s death and included his last recording sessions. Those initial shows were solemn affairs, in which a light shone on the stage space aside Springsteen, where Clarence Clemons would have stood.
Clemons says the shows were emotional for him, too. He points out that the first E Street Band show he saw that didn’t include his uncle was the one that he played in.
“You know, it’s so familiar to me that it just felt like it’s always felt.” But, he said, “There’s always challenges personally, for myself and emotionally. The first show, that was tough, but also enriching. You know, we carry the torch and there’s something beautiful in that – that magic.”
The mood had lightened by the second leg of the tour later that year.
“It’s a lot of weight to carry, in the sense of the weight of missing someone,” Clemons said. “But we come to the point where, if we’re lucky, that weight that we carry, that depth of our sorrow, is put away and we see a beautiful thing that we feel good about.
“It will never go away, but instead of being a burden – not that it’s ever been a burden – it becomes something that is new.”
Asked whether the subject of recording with Springsteen has come up, Clemons said, “I have no idea what Bruce’s plans are for the future. I think he’s a very wise and good man and we’ll see how it goes. I’m very much a person of the present.”
For now, Clemons is completing his second solo disc, hopefully by the end of the year. It follows his solo debut EP, “It’s On,” in 2011.
He released a single, “You Must Be Crazy,” through the Global Citizens, an organization that seeks to end extreme poverty worldwide and which held the Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park in September. Clemons played at the festival.
Clemons says his five-member band plays “rock and soul,” with elements of Johnny Cash, Ryan Adams and Foo Fighters, “all the way on the other side to Nirvana and Radiohead.”
He says he “grew up with a very eclectic listening experience” that included a lot of gospel/soul by artists such Andrae Crouch, but “one of the first rock ’n’ roll experiences I got turned onto was Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.”
Of course, Clemons says, Springsteen is a big influence – especially the way he connects to the audience. “That connection’s important to me. It’s kind of like when you sit down to have coffee with somebody, you kind of know immediately whether you’re going to have a real conversation or not. And for me, it’s about that moment with the audience.”
He says part of that is what he carries with him from his uncle.
“I know how much he would have enjoyed this,” Clemons said. “We all still feel him. He’s as present with me on my CDs as he is there with me onstage, and it’s great.”