René Bloch: The Rabbi with Swing
If you like jazz, you may know the jazz standard, “Harlem Nocturne.” Johnny Otis’s band made it a big hit in the 1940s, featuring a plaintive lead by 18-year-old alto sax player René Bloch. Bloch went on to play with big band leaders Charlie Barnet, Harry James and Perez Prado, known as the King of the Mambo. Bloch recorded the number one hits “Cherry Pink and Blossom White” and “Patricia” with Prado’s band.
But Bloch’s life took a major turn in mid-life. He ended up as a rabbi of a Messianic congregation—a position he still holds today at age 90! How does something like that happen? Well, as Rabbi Bloch explains, “This is God. It couldn’t have happened any other way.”
René, whose father, Louis, was a French Jew, was named after famous French aviator René Fonck, a World War I fighter ace. Louis’s family emigrated from France to Mexico, where Louis met his wife, Caroline. Louis and Caroline moved to southeast Los Angeles, where René was born in 1925, the youngest of four brothers.
Louis taught his boys what he knew of Judaism, but there were no synagogues in their working-class neighborhood. Since Louis did not drive, the only way to the nearest synagogue was by streetcar, a trip the family made only on the High Holidays. Most of their relatives lived some distance away, so Passover seders were shared with neighborhood Jewish friends.
The Blochs listened to jazz, and clarinetist Artie Shaw became René’s favorite. The local Conservatory of Music loaned him a metal clarinet, but he hated the metal version and returned it a month later. When René was twelve, his brother’s friend sold him a silver saxophone for $25. He loved it, but wanted a better horn, so he took a job on Saturdays pumping gas for $2 a day. His mother felt sorry for him and helped him buy a Buescher alto sax.
Bloch played by ear for a couple of years until he went to an audition and realized he needed to learn to read music. He found Merle Johnston, an accomplished saxophonist and music teacher, and told him, “I want to be fast. I want to be the best saxophone player in the world.” Johnston responded, “Well, then you’ll have to practice.”1
And practice he did, five to six hours a day in the closet of his parents’ apartment, nearly driving his father crazy. René attended Jefferson High School, which has produced jazz luminaries such as Dexter Gordon and Art Farmer. Like many Jefferson musicians, René studied under Dr. Samuel Brown, who had René join the musicians’ union. René fell in love with the music of Count Basie and began to channel Basie’s great alto sax player, Preston Love. René was playing regularly in the stage band at the Lincoln Theater. When legendary band leader Otis heard René play, he was thrilled that he played like Love. He hired René.
That led to Bloch’s beautiful recording of “Harlem Nocturne.” After playing with several other bands, Bloch got his first taste of Latin jazz with Prado’s group. He played with Prado for five years, also serving as band manager, traveling from L.A. to Florida to New York and even to Spain.
When Prado’s band broke up, René formed his own band from all of Prado’s musicians—except Prado! That band recorded several albums, including Mucho Rock (1958), a combination of Latin and rock, and Mr. Latin (1962).
During this time, René’s mother was beginning to worry that her traveling-musician son wasn’t meeting any nice Jewish girls. So she got a friend to invite René to dinner to meet the friend’s daughter, Miriam. They hit it off and were married in 1961. Children followed, two sons and a daughter. René broke up the band in the mid-1960s and became assistant to the president of the local musicians’ union.
Most of his friends were Jewish musicians. One of them, Eddie Carlin, invited René and Miriam to attend Marriage Encounter, at that time a Catholic-run weekend event to enhance marriages. People of all faiths were welcome, and Carlin and his wife had loved it. The Bloch’s marriage was fine, but they decided to go.
During the weekend, a Catholic priest asked the Blochs, “Are you Jewish?” René was defensive, thinking perhaps the priest was going to throw them out! Instead, the priest asked them to read a passage from the Bible. René recalls, “Every word was exploding in my mind and in my heart, because he was describing Yeshua (Jesus). So when I finished that chapter, he said, ‘Who do you think that was?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s something from your Christian Bible.’ And he said, ‘No, that’s from your Bible, Isaiah, chapter 53.’2 I just kept reading it over and over until it sank in—Jesus is the Messiah! He’s the one we’ve been looking for all this time.”
After returning home, René told Miriam, “There have to be other Jews who believe this.” René found a listing in the Yellow Pages for a Messianic congregation, Temple Beth Emmanuel. He phoned on a Friday, and they invited the Blochs to a bar mitzvah that evening. “The service was magnificent,” René remembers. “It was like we finally found home. We found Jewish believers in Yeshua like us.”
But the change in René was not just in religious observance.
“There was a change in my countenance,” he says. “All my friends could see it in my face, and I could feel it in my heart. I had such joy.”
By 1981, the Blochs felt led to make aliyah. They completed the paperwork, sold their home, and drove across country. They stayed with friends in Rockville, Maryland, ready to depart from New York City to Israel in a few weeks. But during that time, René hooked up with musicians Paul Wilbur and Marc Chopinsky from Beth Messiah Congregation in Rockville. The trio bonded quickly and aliyah was put on hold—for ten years! The three musical friends became the band Israel’s Hope and produced two albums. Arise O Lord was nominated for a Dove award.
When Wilbur left for Chicago for a worship leader position, René thought it was finally time to head for Israel. But the aliyah office told him he’d have to start the whole process from scratch. That seemed too daunting, so René moved his family back to California. There the Blochs began to attend Beth Shalom congregation in Corona. In 1991 the congregation asked René to serve as their rabbi. He accepted. He continued to plays his horns as well, recording the album Winds of the Spirit in 1992.
“It was not my idea,” say René about serving as rabbi. “It was God’s idea.” He felt that all the teaching he had received the last ten years at Beth Messiah had prepared him for this role.3
Beth Shalom remains spiritually healthy. René son Robert also serves as rabbi there and has taken on many of the responsibilities. In 2013 Beth Shalom purchased a synagogue, previously the home of a Conservative congregation. René plays music in his congregation as well, weaving jazz into the worship.
“I play what I feel in my heart,” he says. “I think God appreciates it. I think God loves jazz.”4
Matt Sieger is the editor of ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective. ISSUES is our publication for Jewish people who are willing to consider the question, Who is Jesus? Matt also writes blogs, articles, and reviews for our publications and has edited the book, Stories of Jews for Jesus.