"I was always interested in early music and always interested in music that other people weren't necessarily interested in," Thompson said. "If the music was even less common, then I was into it even more. Even with Chinese music that most people weren't familiar with."
In the late 1960s, Thompson was drafted into the United States Army and was shipped to Vietnam.
"That got me very interested in Asia," Thompson said.
When Thompson returned home, he went back to school to gain a Master's degree in Asian studies.
"I always thought that if I found something to be interesting, I wanted to know where it came from," Thompson said.
Life changing book
Thompson said that he read a book entitled, "The Lore of the Chinese Loot," which changed his life forever.
"The book was fascinating," Thompson said. "I learned about the qin, which is an old Chinese silk-stringed zither. I was very interested in the qin (pronounced chin) and I went to Taiwan to learn how to play it. As soon as I started playing, I liked it. I liked the quiet sound. I played the violin and the piano and that used to disturb my neighbors when I practiced. The qin is so quiet that I never had to worry about bothering anyone else. As I played and studied it, I realized the impact it had on Chinese culture. It was a good way for me to get into Chinese culture."
The qin is a seven-stringed zither that is placed on a table and played that way. The strings are made of silk and the qin is usually associated with nature.
"It's never used for performances," Thompson explained. "It's mostly for meditation."
Thompson has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to playing the qin and talking about Chinese culture. He travels the world making presentations on both. He spends his days transcribing old musical pieces that were written on tablets and put them to conventional music.
Thompson lived in Hong Kong for 25 years and married his wife Suzanne there in 1998. Because Suzanne Thompson took a job in New York in 2001, he moved to Weehawken.
"One of the reasons why I liked Weehawken was that you can go to Manhattan via ferry, just like how I got to Hong Kong from where I lived," Thompson said.
Thompson has continued to travel the globe in giving presentations, including a recent visit to Spain and Estonia.
But on Thursday night, Thompson's presentation will be done just a stone's throw from his front door.
Thompson will perform "Music from the Time of Marco Polo," at 7 p.m. at the Senior Nutritional Center on Highwood Terrace, presented by the Weehawken Free Public Library.
Thompson said that he met library aide Gary Cahill at the Weehawken Day Festival last September and told Cahill about what he did.
"Gary thought it would be an interesting presentation for the library," Thompson said. "We just had to find a suitable date."
Classical Chinese music presentation
Thompson said that there isn't a huge following for classical Chinese music, but he makes the presentations more understandable with interesting dialogue.
"When you think of it, most people don't want to hear it," Thompson said. "I am trying to make it fluent for the people. If I'm describing what I'm doing, it makes it easier. When I describe it as being peaceful and calming, then the interest picks up. Most Chinese music is either elegant or common. This is elegant. I would say that it's more for relaxation, for self cultivation. It makes you a better person."
Weehawken Free Public Library Executive Director Phillip Greco was pleased to be able to present Thompson and his unique musical approach.
"We wanted to do something that would coincide with Chinese New Year," Greco said. "We've never had anything involving Chinese culture and classic music. We're very proud to be able to have a resident like John who is so astute in the instrument and culture. It should be a fine evening."
"I think it will be much different than what people in Weehawken are used to hearing," Thompson said.
The presentation "Music from the Time of Marco Polo," featuring Weehawken resident John Thompson, will be performed at the Senior Nutritional Center, 201 Highwood Terrace, Thursday, Feb. 22, beginning at 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more information please call the library at (201) 863-7823 or visit our website at http://library.weehawken-nj.us.