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Jazz great Pope tells of bipolar struggles

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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.

Courageous.

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."

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