roots & branches

As noted a few posts back, Clarence Clemons was the central figure in the mythology of Bruce Springsteen, and that mythology is what allowed Springsteen to explore dangerous, racially charged territory. Bruce and Clarence promised more than a cold peace between the races; for many of us, the two of them were the main argument for the idea that great things rain down when black and white are together.

Ok, but what was Clarence Clemons’ musical achievement? Occasionally a critic would sniff that Clemons wasn’t much of a sax player, and I suppose if you put him up against your average jazzbo you could reach that conclusion.

But of course Clemons didn’t really come from a jazz tradition at all; he followed on from the great r & b and rock and roll honkers and shouters, a line that started with one foot in jazz – Coleman Hawkins’ tone and the ensemble riffing of Count Basie’s bands – but came into its own with the jump blues bands of World War II and immediately after, and then on to people like Johnny Otis.

Clarence is the legitimate son of the bar walking sax players like Big Jay McNeeley, and he was the younger brother, musically, of King Curtis, whose influence he acknowledged. And Junior Walker and The All-Stars would have a seat at the family reunion.

For one thing, Clemons restored the primacy of the saxophone. Springsteen’s music, of course, gave the context: Bruce’s genius in the early 70s was to mix back together what had separated into its constituent parts: the blues, r & b and country out of which rock and roll came, and which – with hindsight – was much reduced as ‘rock.’

‘Rock’ was guitar music. ‘Rock n’ roll’ was at least as much sax and piano music. As a lead instrument in the early E Street Band, Clemons led the way in revitalizing the older form. I think that’s a big part of the reason why punks, who put down everybody in mainstream rock, largely steered clear of Springsteen. He had a streak of the anarchic early rock n’ roll in him.

Second, Springsteen’s music gave Clemons the largest stage a rock n’ roll sax player ever had, and Clemons consistently rose to the challenge. At its best, Springsteen’s music is expansive; it suggests release and responsibility, hope and fear, faith and doubt. It says all the contradictions are part of the same train. Clemons crafted solos (sometimes with Springsteen’s help) that were the essence of great popular music – instantly memorable, inevitable sounding, shorter the 30th time you played it than the first. Emotionally, the solos touched areas Curtis and Starr did not go – on ‘Live in NYC,’ what is the emotion Clemons’ long intro to “The River” conjures? Ditto for “Jungleland,” “Thunder Road” and a dozen others. He was not a jazz player, but he had a jazz player’s knack for producing feelings you couldn’t quite describe, but which made you feel more human, more yourself and as Springsteen would say, more alive.

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