Jake Clemons on Clarence: 'He's On That Stage Every Night'

The E Street Band saxophonist on losing his uncle, tackling 'Jungleland' and going solo

Jake Clemons and Bruce Springsteen of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform in Denver, Colorado.
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jake Clemons and Bruce Springsteen perform with the E Street Band perform in Denver, Colorado.
By |

Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons and his replacement as the E Street Band's lead saxophonist, is standing in a Manhattan rehearsal hall with his solo band when he picks up a familiar instrument. "This is the sax that Clarence used on 'Blood Brothers,' " says Jake, 33. "But it wasn't his main instrument – I call that one Excalibur. It's probably the most important saxophone in the world." 

Bruce Springsteen's Eulogy for Clarence Clemons

When Clarence died in 2011, he left Excalibur to Jake; the younger Clemons spent the past year and a half playing it at Bruce Springsteen concerts around the world. It took him only a few shows to win over fans who couldn't imagine anybody but the Big Man playing the "Badlands" solo, and he's now on the road playing material from his upcoming solo EP. Check out exclusive streams of his new songs "You Must Be Crazy," "Songs For Hope" and "Embracing Light."

We sat down with Jake to discuss growing up with and losing his uncle Clarence, learning how to play the sax, joining the E Street Band and establishing himself as as solo artist. 

Do you remember when you realized that you wanted music to become the focus of your life?
It wasn't until I was eight that I got sold on the deal. That's when I saw the E Street Band for the first time. It was the first concert that I ever saw. I saw what Clarence was doing and how the crowd reacted. That moment I realized it was my destiny.

Did your realize before that how beloved and famous your uncle was?
Before that, my uncle was the most loving and beautiful person that I knew. I knew that he was on the radio and TV. It didn't seem so bizarre to me, though. It took me a long time to realize that wasn't normal.

When did you pick up the saxophone?
I honestly had no relationship with the saxophone personally until I saw Clarence on the Tunnel of Love tour. 

How long after that did you start learning how to play?
Well, my dad was really cool. He was a band director for the Marine Corps. He went to school for music and he understood it really well. I literally told him in the parking lot of the show that I wanted to do that with my life. I told him I wanted to play saxophone. 

Tell me more about that show.
It was North Carolina. It was one of those snapshot moments that really stays with you. I was in the stands on Clarence's side. We had average seats. Bruce did his introductions and the crowd applauded, but when he introduced Clarence the place just erupted. It was like there was a volcano going off. I didn't know something like that could exist. To be honest, [my desire to learn sax] was born completely out of vanity. Clarence was just my uncle, so I thought the sax player had to be the coolest guy on the stage. 

My dad told me I had to play piano first, just to get a foundation. I'm very thankful for that. It was huge for me. I didn't start messing around on the sax for about two years, when I was 11. I studied it in school, pretty standard stuff. I picked it up pretty quickly and I was doing All-City Jazz and stuff like that. Then Clarence gave me my first horn. I must have been 11. 

Did you try to learn and play like Clarence?
I was just trying to learn to play, and my teacher certainly wouldn't have been excited about the rasps, but he was always one of my biggest influences. When I got into jazz school I got into all the jazz greats – Dexter Gordon and Coltrane – so at that time my biggest influences on the saxophone were Clarence Clemons and John Coltrane. People would actually reference that when listening to me.

I imagine you saw a lot more Springsteen shows after the band reformed in 1999. What was that like?
I saw a lot of shows in that period, and it was definitely surreal. It just amazed me, the churchiness of it. The audience cooperated to help make the experience stronger and bigger, the way they raised their hands. I was soaking all that stuff in and getting wowed. It wasn't until then that I really started to understand Bruce's music. 

Did you spend a lot of time with Bruce then?
Not a ton, but my earliest memories of Bruce go back to 1984 or 1983. It was just hanging out at the beach with him.

What kind of music did you like in the 1990s?
Lots of Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Pedro the Lion . . .

At that point, did you know albums like Greetings From Asbury Park?
No, no, no. I mean, I would've recognized the cover and the titles, but I hadn't taken the deep dive at that point. 

When did that happen?
It was much later. I was probably 25 when I started to really delve into it. Part of the reason was because I was a sax player and I was kind of mortified at the idea of being Clarence Clemons' nephew instead of being Jake Clemons the saxophone player.

Yeah, I imagine you were constantly compared to him.
In my high school years, for sure. After that, to move away from that, and purely out of fear, I changed my last name publicly to my mother's maiden name, which was Christian. I was Jake Christian for a few years. 

Did you start going on the road a lot more about the time of Magic?
Yeah. I even went to rehearsals around then. That really taught me how to run a rehearsal. There's elements of that band that are really magical. Everybody's there for the same reason and applying themselves constantly. Bruce knows what he wants and directs it accordingly. 

I'm sure it was hard to see your uncle in pain around this time.
Yeah, it definitely was. He was in a lot of pain constantly, so it wasn't new at this point. He had been struggling with stuff for a while. He asked me to come out at that time because he was concerned about his state of being. That freaked me out. We had a lot of conversations about it. I was like, "You're going to be great forever. Think about the advances in science and technology." I never believed that what  happened would ever happen.

What's amazing is that he never missed a show during all those years, no matter what sort of hell he was going through.
Absolutely. And there's no way that would have changed. He was 100 percent committed to that. On the Magic tour we did have some conversations where he told me he was worrying about missing a show and that I might have to play. I said, "That's ridiculous. Don't even talk like that. You're not going anywhere." Nobody wants to have that conversation. After he passed away, there were a lot of conversations about how to handle things.

I spoke to Bruce a lot in that period. We'd both just lost a cornerstone. We had a lot of conversations, and he was very gracious and loving.  

Did part of you think the shoes were too big and you just couldn't handle it?
Fortunately, because of the way that Clarence had talked to me before, that part of it wasn't a big concern. I was afraid – I shouldn't say afraid – I didn't know how it should be dealt with. I didn't know how the band should continue. It wasn't until I really began to understand how important that voice was that I began to understand that it could move forward, and how carefully that had to be handled.

I needed to process the mourning for myself. There was a moment just a few weeks after Clarence passed away where I was having a hard time coming out of my bedroom. I got a phone call from Glen Hansard and Eddie Vedder. They asked me to come out to a show they were doing and sit in. That was really kind, and it got me out of my room. 

I walked onstage, played some songs, and really connected with the horn. I hadn't played my horn since he'd passed away. When I was playing I could feel him again. It felt real, like he was present. And that became a really important part of my healing process. And then the conversation got broader. I realized that I couldn't be so selfish with it. The fans needed that healing. They need to connect with it like I did. Millions of people were missing him, too.

So many people who never met him felt he was part of their lives.
As big as as man as he was, his heart was bigger than his body. If you heard his notes, if you saw his smile, you knew you were loved.

After you agreed to join the group, you must have done a pretty deep dive into the catalog.
Yes. That was nine hours a day for months. I did a lot of it in my room by myself, and then I did a lot in the studio. I'd just listen to their stuff over and over again. I really applied myself to every note and the inflections. I listened to all the albums and a lot of live recordings. 

Was this painful, joyous or some combination?
I wouldn't say it was painful . . . It was hard. It was definitely hard.

What's amazing, and I hope you take this as a compliment, is how similar you sound to him. There are times in concert where it really sounds like he's playing through you. It's pretty incredible.
He is present, man. He's on that stage every single night. He has not left the stage. There's a connection as far as our sound is concerned. Even when I was playing as Jake Christian, people would tell me that I sounded like Clarence Clemons. I'm also playing his horn.

How exactly did that happen? Did he give you any before he passed away?
Clarence has given me horns through the years. There's only one horn I have that he didn't give me. The horns I have are, gosh, back to the Tunnel of Love tour, and one from The Rising tour. Then he bequeathed all the others to me after he passed away. The horns that were on the last tour are the same ones as this tour. They're his horns, the mouthpieces, even. It was important to me to feel that connection to Clarence, to know that his lips were still on that brass.

The rehearsals were primarily held on a former military base in New Jersey. I imagine that was when you began playing with the rest of the horn section.
Yeah, those guys are phenomenal. They're the A-game. You can't get a better horn section than those guys. I had never played in a horn section before. I'd done a few gigs with a three-piece horn section, but that's not the same thing. They were really gracious with me and they taught me a lot. It's a different animal, and that blend is something I never really did. I didn't even play marching band. 

You're facing a scenario where there's literally hundreds of songs you might be asked to play at a second's notice.
Right. Again, thankfully, those guys are amazing, and my ear is at least half decent, and we could find a way to blend.

I remember being at the first show at the Apollo Theater and watching you walk down for the "Badlands" solo. It was a really big moment.
[Laughs] That was a very intense moment. It was more intense than most people realize. I mean, people realize it was an intense moment, but they don't know it was an emergency situation. It went from a moment that could've been flooded with a lot of thought to being an emergency where I could just act, fortunately. I was preparing for it in my head and thinking, "OK, make sure these notes are right. This is the first thing that people are going to hear. This introduction has to be strong." 

I did a little test note with the horn to make sure everything was OK. It was like being introduced to baseball fans at the World Series and you're up to bat. To get my head straight, I did a test note, and my horn wasn't working. I'm sure there's a video out there where you can see me running back to change mouthpieces and microphones in order to get that solo. 

It's funny. There were moments leading up to that where I kind of felt Clarence's nudge along the way. His presence was there. We had two horns that were ready to go. There was the silver and gold one that he played a lot on his tours, and there was a silver and black that he played on occasion, but not very much. It was his number two horn. Almost out of respect, I was playing the number two horn. This was my first introduction and I'm playing the horn, and I can't get the note out, so I had to pick up Clarence's main horn to play the first solo. I could feel Clarence being like, "What the hell do you think you're doing? This is still my show. This is my stage. You're playing my horn."

Talk about pressure. There were no rehearsal shows. You're on one of the most iconic stages in the world in front of an audience of VIPs. Elvis Costello was right near me in the audience. On top of that, it's being broadcast live on the radio.
There's nothing like being introduced to a very dedicated fan base by a live concert being streamed to the entire known universe. My name was trending on Twitter globally. It was crazy. It was a crazy, crazy moment.

How did you feel after that show? Just extreme relief?
You know, I was thinking about the hundred shows that were coming after that. We hadn't played one yet that was on the actual roster. 

By this point did you know all the songs? If he called for, say, "Paradise By the 'C,'" would you have known that?

No. No. Absolutely not. I was able to reference a lot along the way, but again, Bruce was being very, very gracious with me. Eddie Manion, too. That guy had been playing that music for a long time. He's a fantastic player, and he was really supportive. 

Let's move ahead to when you first did "Jungleland" in Europe. Did you think that maybe Bruce would never call for that song, since it was so iconically Clarence's?
Well, my first thoughts were on Clarence asking me to play it a few years ago, especially as it was getting harder and harder for him to hold notes for so long. My first thought was Clarence saying he'd like me to play that song, but my next thought was how Clarence embodied that song. That song was his. If you said "Clarence Clemons" to most people, they'd think of "Jungleland." 

I wasn't afraid of that song being retired, for that jersey to be hung up. But again, it became a huge part of the healing process. When we first played that song it went from . . . what it meant to me was that leading up to that point, Clarence was missing. The tragedy in my heart the first time we played it was that I knew he wasn't coming back. It's almost like when you take the plate off the table or when somebody else is sitting at their seat. That became that moment for me, and it was really, really, really heavy . . . The moment was so significant that we couldn't soundcheck it. That moment was the first time that the band heard me play that song. 

I've heard Branford Marsalis say that he didn't understand how difficult Clarence's job was until he sat in with the band once, and his lungs were aching by the end. It's not as easy as it looks, right?
Yeah, I would say so. It's funny. I think that people who don't play saxophone get it better than people who do play saxophone.

Right. Some players are probably snobs and think that playing with a rock band is easy, unlike jazz.
Yeah, it's a different gig. I'm a surfer, and to put it in a similar perspective, when I surf on the East Coast, we don't have massively huge wages. When you go to Hawaii, they're big and beautiful and smooth, but if you took a Hawaiian surfer here they'd have a horrible time. They'd have to put in a lot of work on these tiny waves. It might not be a real long wave, but in order to do something great on this wave, it's almost a different sport.

Let's move onto your upcoming solo tour. It's gonna be a big change from soccer stadiums, but I imagine you're looking forward to that.
Yeah, it's great for perspective. It's a gift to have my own band and my own entity, and I get all this encouragement along the way.

It's very ambitious to dive into a solo tour right after wrapping up a real long world tour.
I'm still young. For me, as a songwriter, I don't have time to relax. I'm trying to build my own legacy. It's a really beautiful gift to be aware of what it's like to play with greatness. I love being onstage with those guys. It's like being in Greece 2000 years ago when these statues of gods are being built. I'm onstage with these guys from rock & roll mythology. It's insane for me, as a mere mortal, to be able to walk among them.

What I want to do with my own group is apply all the lessons that I learned. If people are coming to see me from the Bruce family, they've just seen me with the greatest band on earth. So I want to apply all the lessons I learned as far as communicating with the audience, creating a set list with a theme and a voice. Before 2012, to be honest with you, my set list was pretty depressing. My music was self-serving. That's why this experience has been so important. I want to use it for greatness.

So the Springsteen tour heads to South Africa and Australia in a couple months. Do you know what's happening after that?
[Laughs] I have no clue. I have no clue.

It's gotta be strange to have no idea what's happening in your life next year, though I guess it's not up to you.
I kind of feel that way in life anyway. That's not necessarily new for me. I've made plans before that meant nothing in the end, and I've made plans that turn out great. That part isn't new to me. But I know we're going to Australia and I've got five weeks that we're putting together with my band pretty much right after that. We're doing a full U.S. tour, taking this record all over the country.

Every night when they show the Clarence montage during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," I see you turn your head up and look at it.
I'm not watching it. I'm looking up out of respect. I'm looking out of connection. It's like I'm having a mental conversation with the Big Man. I'm like, "Do you hear this?"

I imagine what's happened is pretty much his dream scenario – you taking over after he passed away.
Yeah, I would say so. He's definitely invested in it. My saying these days is "trust providence." If you're watching carefully enough, you can see the pathway, and that this is here for a reason.

Some people in your position might have a hard time with it. You've been given this amazing opportunity, but it only happened because of an unspeakable tragedy. That sounds horrible, but you know what I mean.
I'm so gentle with that. I know there's a zero percent chance that Clarence can be replaced. That is not a reality. And you know why? It's because he's still here. This is still his stage. He can't go anywhere. As much as I love playing these songs, I don't look at this as a fortuitous opportunity. I thank God that he provided a way for this message to continue. I thank God that he put Clarence in the world in the first place. 

I suppose it's a blessing that the end of his life was relatively quick. There wasn't a prolonged period of hospitalization, just a week or so.
Yeah, and it was an important week. I was in Ireland finishing up my own tour when the stroke happened. I went straight to the airport and flew to Florida to be with him. I spent that last week with him. I knew he could hear my voice and he was gripping my hand. I honestly don't know what I would've done had I not had that time. 

He went out after an incredible long tour with Bruce, and then he played with Lady Gaga. I talked to him on the phone a few months before he died. He was so happy about that opportunity.
Absolutely. I mean, he happened to be doing the biggest thing in the universe at the time, which was playing with Lady Gaga on American Idol. It just so happens there was nothing bigger at the time. That was his last chapter. 

Just one last thing. How can you book a tour for next year when you don't know Bruce's plans?

Well, I said to them, "Do you have any plans?" They said they didn't, so I booked some shows and they said, "All right, cool." Then I have to cross my fingers and pray that I don't have to cancel any dates. 

I'm hearing lots of rumors about a new Bruce album.
Yeah, we will see what happens. We'll see what happens. Ummm . . . I mean, I think it's public knowledge that there were some recording sessions, but who knows? I have no clue.