March 22, 1926–March 24, 2017
Avo Uvezian, one of the cigar industry’s most colorful, best-known and most dearly loved figures, has passed away. The iconic composer of both music and cigars was 91.
Uvezian was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised in an Armenian Christian home by parents who were both career musicians—his father was a composer and a symphony conductor, and his mother was a talented singer. Learning to play the piano at a young age, Uvezian began earning a living as a musician playing at hotels while he was still a teenager.
At the end of World War II, Uvezian formed a jazz trio—the Lebanon Boys—with two Austrian Jews who had survived a concentration camp in Libya. The trio performed in Tehran, Iran, where one night they entertained the Shah of Iran. When his band started playing the popular song “In the Mood,” couples got up to dance. Uvezian noticed that they were dancing the wrong way to the song. Uvezian could not contain himself.
“They were dancing the wrong way,” he recalled in a 2008 interview with Tobacconist magazine. “Here I am, 21 years old without any knowledge of protocol, and I tell the guests at the Shah’s party that they’re dancing badly.”
Rather than being offended by Uvezian’s earnest admonitions, the Shah of Iran was impressed by Uvezian and became the young musician’s patron. Uvezian could have remained in Iran; however he missed his family and wanted to return home. With civil unrest brewing in Lebanon, Uvezian moved to New York City to stay with relatives and study music at Julliard.
In 1951, Uvezian was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey. Newly married to his first wife, Marie, it seemed as though Uvezian was destined to serve his new country on the front in Korea with the First Army. While he underwent infantry training his military commanders learned that he could play piano, and he was assigned to play in the First Army band.
“After telling them that I was a pianist, I was transferred from infantry training to the band. I only played piano, but they were also a marching band. So I had to pretend that I could play the trombone during parades,” Uvezian remembered in the same 2008 interview.
Uvezian also formed a jazz trio and performed at the Fort Dix officers club. While performing at the club, Uvezian entertained First Army commander Lt. Gen. Willis D. Crittenberger, who requested the jazz trio to play “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
“I was bound to go to Korea in a week,” Uvezian said in the 2008 interview. “We played it, and the general told us that it was one of the best versions of the song he had heard. He approached the piano, and I tried to get up to salute him. The general told me to sit down and continue playing. Afterwards he said it would be nice to have me at headquarters. A general’s wish is a command, and my orders were changed. They took me from New Jersey to First Army headquarters at Governor’s Island, New York.”
After his military service, Uvezian played with several bands throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He also appeared on several television shows. He began a family with Marie that grew to three sons. As Uvezian tells it, it was during this time that Uvezian wrote a song titled “Broken Guitars.” He performed the song for Frank Sinatra, who loved the melody but persuaded Uvezian to change the title and lyrics. The song would become “Strangers in the Night,” one of Sinatra’s best-known works, and the song’s creation would be credited to Bert Kaempfert. It was an unfortunate blow for Uvezian, and, unable to support his family by playing only music, he began working for his wife’s family’s jewelry company and settled in Puerto Rico, where the business had a factory.
While in Puerto Rico, both Uvezian’s first marriage and the job with the jewelry company ended. He remained in Puerto Rico and returned to music, playing at a resort in Palmas del Mar. He met his second wife, Nivia, in 1975. Six years later, the couple welcomed a daughter Karyn. Indirectly, Karyn’s birth would lead Uvezian into the cigar industry. A man who had befriended Uvezian years earlier invited him to bring his family to Switzerland to christen Karyn in an Armenian church. After the christening, friends and family celebrated with a nice dinner and cigars.
“It was the first time I ever smoked a premium cigar, and my friend told me that I should investigate having my own cigars because I lived so close to where they are made. That’s where the idea of making my own cigars was born,” Uvezian recalled in 2008.
Uvezian researched cigar manufacturers and a year later chose Hendrik Kelner to make his cigars, which he called Bolero. While still playing piano at the Puerto Rico club, Uvezian smoked and sold his cigars. By 1988, he was selling so many cigars that he decided to pursue cigar making a little more seriously. He sent samples to the Davidoff shop on Madison Avenue in New York City. They took on the brand.
“In one year I sold almost 20,000 cigars and made three times my salary playing piano,” he remembered. The Davidoff shop asked for more cigars and suggested that he change the name of the brand to Avo because another factory had a trademark for the Bolero name. The association with Davidoff grew closer. When the Swiss company wanted to move the production of its cigars from Cuba, it ultimately chose Kelner’s Tabadom factory in the Dominican Republic. It was a decision shaped largely on Uvezian’s relationship with Kelner.
In 1995, Davidoff purchased the Avo brand from Uvezian. Uvezian could have walked away a wealthy man, but he accepted Davidoff’s offer to make him a brand ambassador. Representing his eponymous cigar line, Uvezian delighted audiences worldwide for nearly two decades. Always immaculately dressed in a Brioni suit and wearing a trademark Mexican straw hat, he appeared at cigar events where he played piano, thus combining his love for music and cigars in a two-part harmony that represented Uvezian so well.
“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,” commented Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, CEO of Oettinger-Davidoff, in a release announcing Uvezian’s passing.
“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,” Jim Young, president of Davidoff North America, added in the same release.
A lifelong composer, Uvezian was engaged in crafting new songs and new cigars to the very end of his life. They were his passions, and he often commented that the creative processes of making new cigars and scoring a new composition were very similar.
“When I start to write a song, I have an idea in my head,” he explained. “It then develops and changes a bit. You create a beginning, middle and an end. It’s the same with tobacco.”
And it is the same with life. There is a beginning, middle and an end. Few people will be able to claim that they have enjoyed as rich a life as Avo Uvezian savored. He leaves behind his wife, Nivia; daughter, Karyn; sons Jeffrey, Robert and Ronny; and untold legions of people around the world who loved Avo for his music, for his cigars and for his personality. While Uvezian might have created the music for Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” he lived his life in a way reminiscent of another Sinatra hit—he did it his way—and there’s much to admire him for it.