Avo Uvezian passed away recently, just a few days after celebrating his 91st birthday. >Staff Report
Beloved friend, cigar legend, and talented music composer Avo Uvezian passed away peacefully on March 24, almost immediately after celebrating his 91st birthday on March 22nd. Uvezian’s passing is a tremendous loss to the cigar industry, as he was enormously appreciated by all who had the pleasure to come into contact with him. “Avo has been a huge personality across the globe and was part of the Davidoff family for over 30 years and we will sorely miss his passion, his personality, and his wonderful talents as a cigar man and as a music man,” said Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, c.e.o. of Oettinger Davidoff.
Jim Young, president of Davidoff North America, added, “Avo was incredibly energized by his engagement with the business and was constantly bringing new ideas to think about. An evening with Avo was always an unforgettable evening of great conversation, laughter and warmth. We shall miss him deeply.”
Scott Kolesaire, who manages the marketing program for Avo and knows him extremely well, added: “Up until the end, the daily phone calls and free-flowing ideas were part of our everyday conversations. Avo was my friend, a life mentor, and a person unlike any other.” It seems funny that when Smoke asked Uvezian, “Who exactly is Avo?” he neglected to include the word “cigar” in his description. It just isn’t necessary. When you look at Avo, you think cigars … even when he isn’t sporting the white bespoke Brioni suit or the trademark hat.
Setting an action into motion is precisely what Avo did in the mid- 1980s at Puerto Rico’s Palmas de Mar resort, where he was playing at the pool’s piano bar. Avo was already having cigars custom-made for his personal consumption and to give away to guests. But one day when a guest asked Avo for a cigar, his five-year-old daughter Karyn remarked, “If he wants a cigar, Dad, let him buy it.” Avo agreed, and the action set in motion that day resulted in one of the world’s most successful premium cigars.
During a sit-down interview at the cigar factory in the Dominican Republic in 1999, Smoke asked Uvezian to describe himself. On the sad occasion of his passing, we find it appropriate to honor the man with a bit of his own words.
“He is a musician, a father, and a crazy Aries,” he said with his trademark smile. “He is from an Armenian family, born into a family of musicians, and who, at the age of 16, became the father of his family. When my father passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1943, my mother, two sisters, and I were in Lebanon. I graduated college at 20 and played piano to support my family. I started playing jazz, even though both my father and I were classically trained performers.” Anyone who was ever lucky enough to sit in front of a piano and hear Uvezian play can thank his aunt. “In 1944 or 1945, I received a record from my aunt in New York. It was Fats Waller playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and the other side was “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” I loved the music, so I started playing it. My sister was a fabulous classical pianist with a marvelous technique, but she could not improvise. I, on the other hand, loved to. Improvising shows the capability to compose; when you improvise music, you are actually writing music on the spot. This is how I made my living.”
Lebanon was a popular retreat for the Allied Forces, and Uvezian helped entertain the soldiers. “It was the black Americans who introduced me to boogie-woogie. I asked one of the fellows where he was from, and he said, “Missour-ah.” He told me, “Man, you play like a black man—you have the jazz in you.” Thank God I did, because jazz ended up pulling me through a lot of difficult times.”
His family moved to Baghdad briefly, and then went on to Tehran. “About two weeks into my Tehran stay, I was invited to play at the Shah’s palace. When the Shah finally met me, he asked his captain to inquire if I spoke French or English. I told him I spoke Farsi. He was amazed. So that broke the ice, and I began to play at all the diplomatic meetings at the Palace, mostly because I was able to play different ethnic music from various countries. The Shah’s wife Sairia was from Bakhtiari. Her family owned one third of Persia—and Persia is three times the size of France. Unfortunately, one of her little princesses, unbeknownst to me, fell in love with me. And I hadn’t even touched her! The Shah said, ‘You know, you’re a commoner no matter what happens, but if the Princess wants you, there is only one thing I can do.’
“He put me on a plane to the States. So, I went from the Shah’s palace to Washington Heights [in New York City]. What a comedown! But I still had my music to fall back on. I enrolled in the Juilliard School to study music composition.”
A short while later, he met a young lady, who would eventually become his first wife. “A month after I got married, I was drafted into the U.S. Army—and I wasn’t even a citizen yet! I got sent to Fort Dix, in New Jersey, and they put me in Infantry training. This was 1950, during the Korean campaign, and I was 24 years old.
One day, I’m walking through the barracks, and I hear some music. I walked in, and saw the Army band practicing. I said, “Hey, I’m a musician,” so they invited me to play. After they heard me play piano, they took me out of Basic and put me into Band Training. So instead of getting out of bed at 4:30 in the morning with the sullen sergeants, we were waking up at 7:30 to eat breakfast, practice, and play.
Uvezian left the military in 1952, and began life as a civilian. “For the next several years, I designed jewelry for my father-in-law. When he passed away, I had to go to Puerto Rico to look after some factories he had there. Eventually we sold them, and I found myself back in the music business—this time playing piano for the opening of the new Palmas Del Mar resort. Once they heard me play, they offered me a four-month contract. I enjoyed the work so much, I stayed there for 14 years.”
In 1983, on a trip to Switzerland, Uvezian and a friend went out for dinner and a cigar. They were charged $24 per cigar, which shocked and angered Uvezian. “I came back home and immediately booked a trip to the Dominican Republic, to see if I could find a factory,” he recalled. Finally, he found Hendrik Kelner’s TABADOM factory, and had some samples made. “I said to myself, “If I’m going to go into the cigar business, why would anybody buy an Avo cigar? Nobody knows it!” When Henkie (Kelner) presented me with a quote for the cigars, I told him, “I’m going to give you 25 percent more than you asked for.” This way, I knew Henkie would make sure I got his best tobacco and rollers.”
Around the same time, he connected with Michel Roux, the man responsible for bringing Absolut vodka into the United States. “He told me, “Avo, if you’re going to get into the cigar business, do it the way I got into the vodka business–make the most expensive cigars, and make sure they are also the best cigars. And make sure the packaging says that your product is the best.”
Roux helped Uvezian get a distinct label designed. “I sent cigars to the Davidoff shop in New York. They sold well, because it was Henkie’s cigar, and the Davidoff people knew how to sell it. They ordered more.”
The first year, Davidoff sold about 120,000 cigars. The second year, it went up to 250,000, and the next year, they sold 450,000. “When sales reached 750,000 a year, Davidoff proposed to buy my brand for European distribution only, with me keeping the U.S distribution. I figured, if they’re going to buy it, why not buy it all? We worked out an agreement, and now I concentrate on the promotional aspect of the brand.”
“It’s funny; I think that one of the reasons why Avo has succeeded is because of my hat, which I bought on my honeymoon in Acapulco in 1950,” he recalled. “Being a pianist, and knowing how to connect with the audience, you establish a relationship with your customers. When I’m out promoting my cigar brand, I am also promoting the good life. The white suit and the hat just seem to go along with it.”
And, whenever you found Avo Uvezian at a cigar event, he was likely playing piano, smoking a cigar and visiting with his cigar fans.
Uvezian is survived by his wife Nivia, daughter Karyn, sons Jeffrey, Robert and Ronny and their families.