Bob Blumenthal has written about jazz for Rolling Stone, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Boston Globe. He won two Grammy awards for his album notes. His first book, Jazz: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America’s Music was hailed as “the single best compact introduction to jazz currently available” by the Wall Street Journal. For sixteen years, he was also a lawyer. He refers to himself as a “recovering attorney in a 12-bar program.”
Bob didn’t decide to become a full time music critic overnight. He’d been writing about jazz since his senior year at Harvard, when he had a radio show. An editor of what later became the Boston Phoenix offered him free tickets to a jazz performance if Bob would write a review. Bob already knew he was going to Harvard Law School, and that his legal studies would leave him little time for jazz. Writing occasionally for a weekly paper, he thought, could give him with a chance to stay connected to his great passion and to earn some pocket money at the same time.
He wrote occasional jazz reviews throughout law school. After graduating in 1972, he worked in private practice for a year, which he calls “the most unpleasant year of my life.” He found it hard to write that year, because he never knew when a partner would walk into his office at 5:30 pm, saying he needed a memo by the next morning and forcing Bob to give up his concert tickets that night. He left to become one of six attorneys at the Massachusetts Board of Education, where he stayed for fifteen years. His work schedule in the public sector was more predictable, and Bob had more time to write on the weekends.
When one of his Phoenix editors moved on to Rolling Stone, he recruited Bob to write. That led to pieces in The Atlantic and other publications. Bob also started to write liner notes for jazz albums. In the late 1980s, he became the guest critic for the Boston Globe’s Jazz Festival. While he was still at the Department of Education, the Boston Globe asked him to be a contributor for the Arts section. Bob agreed on the condition that they pay him an annual salary based on what they expected his contributions would be each year. Writing for Rolling Stone and the Phoenix had built up his reputation, giving him the leverage he needed for that negotiation. The Globe agreed. “I became a retained freelancer,” he says.
Bob worked as a lawyer by day and a music critic at night for years. He decided to leave law when the work was no longer challenging and he couldn’t make more money because he was at the top salary grade for his department. When he left, he was making as much from writing as he was from his day job at the Department of Education. It took him six years to double his writing income and replace the money he had made as a lawyer.
Although some people are surprised that Bob left law, he finds it more surprising when people who dislike their work keep trudging forward rather than trying to find a better alternative. “If you are not happy,” he says, “how can you not change your situation?” Leaving law is easy, he says. “It only takes an understanding spouse with a health plan.”