Annette John-Hall: Jazz great Pope tells of bipolar struggles

"There's no reason to feel ashamed or down" because of bipolar disorder, Odean Pope says. "You can feel normal."
"There's no reason to feel ashamed or down" because of bipolar disorder, Odean Pope says. "You can feel normal."
Posted: March 18, 2011

Fellow jazzman Joe Lovano once described Odean Pope as a "bad, bad, bad, beautiful musician, man."

Anybody who has heard Pope reign supreme on tenor sax over the years couldn't argue with that. But after sitting down with Pope the other day and listening to him candidly share details of his decades-long struggle with a personal demon, I'd have to add another word to that riff of superlatives.


For more than 30 years, Pope has suffered from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. It's a disease characterized by episodes of extreme highs and lows, usually triggered by, well, life.

Pope, now 72, got the diagnosis in 1980 after his older brother, John, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Pope sank into a deep, unrelenting depression that was abnormal even for a grieving person.

But like so many African American men who believe mental illness is a sign of weakness, Pope never talked about it.

"A lot of it was me not realizing it was a disease," he says. "I was always looking at it like it was a bad thing."

"He was in denial," his wife, Adelene, offers. "He would never talk about it like he's doing now."

Finally, having found the correct combination of medications after years of treatment, Pope is going public to let folks know that they don't have to suffer in silence - and that there's no weakness in asking for help when you need it.

That's why friends and colleagues will come together Monday night at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts for an all-star concert to raise much-needed money to help with the sax man's medical bills.

Philly roots

True fans know how Pope cut his musical chops among such luminaries as John Coltrane, Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner, and the Heath Brothers in jazz-rich Philly. They know of his longtime tenure with legendary drummer Max Roach and his overall mastery as artist, arranger, composer, and teacher.

But few knew of the manic times, which Pope describes as the worst times.

European tours usually triggered uncontrollable delirium.

"People treated us like royalty," Pope recalls. "There'd be a limo waiting for my wife and me. . . . In Holland, 40 reporters would be waiting to interview me. By the time we got to Paris, I was so high, I would just cry."

"When he started crying," Adelene says, "I knew it was coming."

Driven by manic impulses, Pope "spent money like crazy." Crazy like buying 20 hats at a time, all different kinds, while touring Europe.

His worst episode by far occurred during a five-week European tour with Golson in 2000.

In Paris, Golson discovered Pope wandering naked around the hotel lobby. Golson checked his longtime pal into a hospital, where Pope spent seven weeks.

Pope says he doesn't remember a thing.

He experienced many dark days, gripped by depression, too. Just last summer, Pope would spend weeks staring out of his dining-room window - never eating, never sleeping, just staring.

He dropped 40 pounds.

'It was terrible'

"Oh, boy, it was terrible," Adelene says. "I would cook him everything I knew that he liked - he's crazy about fish and black beans - and he wouldn't touch it.

"One time I got so aggravated with him, I tackled him like a football player and put him to bed."

If not properly treated, bipolar disorder is a physical and emotional steamroller - it just flattens you.

It strains your most cherished relationships and, while it didn't seem to hurt Pope's creativity and artistry - he still gets plenty of gigs, headlining next week at the storied Blue Note in New York - he knew inside that something was wrong.

And for years it prevented him from being completely honest with his family, friends - and himself.

But today, "I'm in a different place," Pope says. "What I'm slowly realizing is that life is complex. There are going to be highs and lows, and you have to deal with them."

"It's a condition, like high blood pressure or diabetes," he says. "There's no reason to feel ashamed or down. You can feel normal."

As I said, courageous testimony from a bad, bad, bad, beautiful musician.

Benefit tickets are $25 and available at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts box office. For more information, call 215-893-9912.

Contact me at 215-854-4986 or Read my work: annette. Follow me on Twitter@Annettejh.

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