Let me introduce you to one of my favorite photographers on the planet.
In-between stints spent playing the trumpet with the 279th Army Band in France in 1956, artist Maurice Sapiro documented the streets of Paris, coolly improvising with light and architectural texture. Inspired by the saturated colors of the Lumière Autochrome color film process, Maurice’s shots still sparkle, much like the City of Light herself.
Stationed in La Rochelle, Maurice and his twin brother Erwin toured with a goodwill ensemble, scattering pep and merriment and rousing throngs of locals to their feet with a series of high-spirited concerts throughout France. With their no-holds-barred zest, the charismatic twins also helped the La Rochelle Philharmonic Society open its 42nd season.
“Music Promotes Good Relations!” reported one newspaper. “Eight American soldier-bandsmen are promoting excellent French-American relations here through their favorite subject, music. The Philharmonic Society President praised the soldiers for being exceptional players and for their kindly assistance in making possible a fine orchestra!”
After I got Maurice on the horn, he set the scene.
The 279th Army Band
Maurice Sapiro: The band consisted of 45 players. I was the assistant conductor. The first year in France, we were stationed in La Rochelle, and then we were moved to Poitiers. With each year of service, you received one month of leave time, along with weekend passes. Erwin and I spent our first leave in Paris, second in London, and third in Venice, Florence, and Rome.
On my Army salary of $90 a month, I concentrated on food. I remember a restaurant in Rome with an “American Menu” neon sign. The only option for breakfast was coffee and apple pie. That was it! The apple pie alone took a week’s earnings but it was worth it.
Strike up the band
Maurice Sapriro: The main function of the 279th Band was ceremonial, for military occasions. The band’s other mission was spreading goodwill throughout France. After playing in a big city, we’d present shows in the surrounding towns. Our repertoire consisted of light classical music like Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday” and “Sleigh Ride.” We also played Gershwin transcripts for the band. Following each concert, it was customary for the town officials to treat us to a dinner, with speeches, and much wine.
I still love Camembert and wine. Thinking back, I’m 25 again.
La Rochelle Philharmonic Society
Maurice Sapiro: The La Rochelle Philharmonic Society requested some players to fill out their instrumentation. Our French horn player, Dick Bass, drove us to the town hall in his Opel car, and we rehearsed with the orchestra. That rehearsal room was not heated, and it was dimly lit, but it is still one of my most treasured memories. The elderly conductor could not speak English, and our French was very limited, but by singing, he got the message across. I remember playing Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” and Joseph Haydn’s “Symphony No. 101.” The concert was a hit.
Maurice Sapiro: We used our weekend passes to get back to Paris. I bought a Leica IIIF at the Army PX for $99, and started each day with a coffee and a croissant on the Champs-Élysées. Within the view of the Arc de Triomphe, I’d begin taking photographs from my seat at the café. After breakfast, I’d head to the Louvre. I was lucky enough to be in Europe before the tourist craze. I had the museum almost to myself. It’s a memory so strong, it seems like it was just yesterday, not 60 years ago.
At the Louvre, I decided that painting and photography would be a major part of the rest of my life. Even then, I knew nothing in the future could compare with Paris.
Maurice Sapiro: My twin brother Erwin was a natural-born leader, and his French was much better than mine. On one particular evening, we were in a restaurant without an English menu. Erwin took charge, and ordered, saying “Trust me, we’re having the best steaks they have!” About ten minutes later, the waiter arrived with an entire pig’s head on a platter. Yes, even an apple in his mouth. That was the last time I let him order. I learned how to order steak and potatoes on my own!
Favorite Paris memory
Maurice Sapiro: Our best friend Max Lurie looked very much like Erwin and me. We could almost pass for triplets. Returning from one of our concert trips, our Warrant Officer decided we could have the afternoon off in Paris. Usually, when on leave, we wore our “civies,” and tried to look like civilians. But here we were, the three of us, dressed in uniform, walking down the Champs-Élysées. As a couple passed us, the man said something to the woman. Max, understanding French, started to laugh hysterically.
“What did they say?” Erwin and I pleaded.
It took Max a few minutes to compose himself, and but finally he told us, “The man said, have you noticed that all Americans look alike?”
Gee, I miss those days. My time spent in Europe will stay with me forever.
Dear Maurice, thanks for sharing your photographs, memories, and wit, too. Dear Joan, thank you for finding the wonderful image of Maurice and your father, Erwin. They look so dapper in full uniform. (Apparently, music runs in the family. Soprano Joan Sapiro Beal also attended the Eastman School of Music. Her composer husband Jeff Beal creates the music for my favorite Netflix television show: House of Cards. Heads-up: Joan’s vocals appear in many episodes of the award-winning series. Encore!)