Inventor takes on musical notation to help reclaim black music

Tim Kimbrough, right, a keyboard player who invented his own musical notation system, warms up at the organ in Bladensburg, Md. CREDIT: Photo by Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post

Tim Kimbrough, the self-proclaimed Thomas Edison of black American keyboard, is living hard.

He’s short $55 on rent for his apartment, which consists of three rooms and a kitchen above a rental office in a Maryland suburb, cluttered with dusty encyclopedia sets and books about artificial intelligence.

He’s a 56-year-old man being pilloried on Craigslist for overposting – putting up too many ads for keyboard lessons he offers for $40 per hour. Lessons that few are willing to pay for.

Then there’s his patent. Kimbrough has invented a method of writing keyboard music – Patent No. 6977334 – that synthesizes a lifetime of studying African-American music, including blues and gospel. The method conveys black music’s nuances to students who, if they practice the 40 hours per week Kimbrough recommends, might become masters.

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But, because Kimbrough is poor, he can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars in fees on the patent, which has lapsed. His method is now in the public domain, for free, and anyone can take it.

“I have to protect my work,” he says, “so I’m doing the best I can.”

His best hasn’t been good enough.

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The treble and bass clefs are not generally thought of as tools of racial oppression. But even before debates about minority representation in the liberal arts, some said the grand staff appropriate for Bach couldn’t capture, for example, the intricate polyrhythms of West African drumming or the microtones of the Indian sitar.

Ron Radano, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the debate about notation goes back to the 19th century, when Europeans tried to document songs sung by slaves on paper.

“It’s enabling and disabling,” Radano said of traditional notation. “It brings slave songs into public eye, but translates them according to the structures of European tradition.”

Many have tried to tackle these perceived shortcomings. Classical great Arnold Schoenberg experimented with extending the staff. MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” composer Anthony Braxton tried to classify the different kinds of sounds instruments make into notation that look quite squiggly.

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These alternate systems might not be practical, teachable or even intelligible, said Radano. But that doesn’t matter.

“Whether or not it makes sense is one thing,” Radano said. “The other thing is the desire to claim the music for oneself . . . Notation goes hand in hand with that.”

Even if standard musical notation isn’t explicitly racist, it’s not race-neutral.

“I don’t think it’s racist,” Kimbrough said of what he dismisses as “lines and staff.” “I think that what has happened around it is racist.”

Kimbrough was born in Summit, New Jersey, in 1960, one of nine children. His mother was a nurse’s aide and his father was a “rolling stone,” as Kimbrough put it. There wasn’t a lot of money.

“I had a vision I could grow up, find success, buy my mother a house,” Kimbrough said. “I never got to do that.”

There was, however, a lot of music. After a woman from his church bought him a drum set, Kimbrough started playing for services at age 8. He switched to piano at 10 when the pastor’s son gave him a lesson.

“I was a total maniac,” Kimbrough said. “I was totally enthralled about playing the piano. I was almost mental.”

In school, Kimbrough was exposed to the lines and staff. It didn’t take.

“I wanted to play the keyboard,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why I would have to do something like that. … It seemed stifling.” Explaining his problem another way, he said: “I choose not to read music.”

The next few decades didn’t take Kimbrough far. He graduated from Montclair State College in 1987 with a degree in economics and got a job as a salesman for a company that manufactured custom business forms.

The gig lasted six months. A stream of what Kimbrough described as menial jobs followed. He lived in Philadelphia and eventually relocated to Riverdale Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland, but life didn’t change much.

“I was talking to my first wife, and said, ‘Remember that job I lost?'” Kimbrough said. “She said: ‘Which one?’ “

Play the bar scene for quick cash? No way.

“I only play for churches, strictly church music,” he said. “When you hear me, you’re hearing an actual 100 percent church keyboard player who’s never played rock and roll at all.”

In 2004, Kimbrough decided to apply for a patent. People had struggled for decades to convey the subtleties of black music to the masses. Now, Kimbrough thought he could – but he wanted to protect his discovery.

The U.S. Patent Office has issued more than 8 million patents since it opened in 1836. Not all of them changed the world.

Abraham Lincoln had a patent for a riverboat flotation system. Eddie Van Halen has one for a thing that holds a guitar up while a guitar player shreds. And Jamie Lee Curtis has one for a diaper.

“It’s probably far easier to get a patent than you think it is,” said Gene Quinn, a patent attorney and the founder of IP Watchdog, an intellectual property law blog.

Though Quinn said every industry is different, he estimated that 98 percent of patents are not going to make anyone money.

“Right now, for the independent inventor, the dream is dangled, but there’s not a lot offered there as follow-up,” Quinn said.

Still, Kimbrough, who indeed calls himself an “independent inventor,” chased the dream. He showed up at the patent office in 2004 without an attorney or any idea how to apply.

“The only thing that guided me was God’s mercies,” he said.

Eighteen months later, after studying other patents and with a little earthly help from an engineer he met in the patent office, Kimbrough had the patent protection he sought.

“Nothing got better or worse,” Kimbrough said. When he tells some people he has a patent, he said, “they don’t even know what it is.”

Traditional notation is read from left to right, but as Kimbrough’s patent shows, his is read vertically, like a scroll. The notes the left hand should play are spelled out, by letter name, on the left side of a chart. Numbers in the center of the chart mark the time, and the right side of the chart spells out the notes for the right hand.

Kimbrough said his system avoids the idea put forth by lines and staff that the left hand plays harmony while the right hand plays melody. Black music is different than European music, Kimbrough said, because the chords are in the right hand while the left hand plays a melodic bassline and has a “separate life of its own.”

At least one man swears by Kimbrough’s unorthodox teaching. The Rev. Boyce Truesdale said he met Kimbrough at a church service and has been taking lessons with him for about eight years.

“He’s an excellent player and an excellent man,” Truesdale said.

At Praise Temple Church of Christ in Bladensburg, Maryland, where Kimbrough plays every Sunday for $250, music is no small part of worship.

“A person can come into our service and feel the charge in the atmosphere,” said James Quarles, the church’s pastor. “You just feel it. You don’t have to be a singer, you start singing. God comes upon you.”

On one Sunday in July, Kimbrough accompanied three vocalists, two other keyboardists and a last-minute fill-in drummer through more than two hours of largely improvised music in a three-hour service. About a dozen worshipers in pews joined in.

There was no sheet music to be seen.

After the service, sitting behind a Hammond B3000 organ, Kimbrough grew philosophical. What he was doing was dying out, he said. Millennials don’t have the patience to develop the artistry he had. The world was overrun by those who expected machines – keyboards, computers – to generate music at the push of a button.

“I’m not a racist,” Kimbrough said. “I’m a realist.”

The reality was that Patent No. 6977334 is languishing. Kimbrough tries to spread word of its power. He self-published a book titled “How to Play Your First Piano Song in Only 6 Days.” He maintains his website (“You can learn how to play beautiful piano music for Jesus the way you have always dreamed of . . .”).

The world, however, may lack the depth necessary to understand his discovery.

“This thing about this black music,” he said, “it digs deep.”


Tim Kimbrough, who invented his own form of musical notation, plays at his church.


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