ORLANDO, Fla. (Cigar Aficionado)—Legendary Armenian-American jazz pianist and cigar manufacturer Avo Uvezian passed away on March 24, two days after his 91st birthday.
Known in the cigar industry for his Avo brands and his sharp sense of style, Uvezian was long a vivacious part of the cigar industry, touring in support of his cigars even at 90 years old. A showman and cigar lover, it wasn’t uncommon to see Uvezian play piano at a cigar event while puffing on one of his cigars and waxing poetic about the joys of smoking.
Uvezian first came into cigar prominence when the Avo line was born in 1987, but his cigar story started long before that.
Born in 1926 in Beirut, Lebanon, Uvezian formed a musical group called the Liban Boys in 1945 right after the end of World War II. They managed to get a contract playing in a hotel in Baghdad, where the group lasted a year before moving on to a hotel in Tehran. Uvezian quickly made a name for himself as a pianist and eventually received an invitation from Shah Reza Pahlevi, at the time the leader of Iran, to play at his palace. Uvezian stayed in Tehran for a year, and made such an impression on the Shah that he recommended that Uvezian go to America, and personally paid for his trip.
Uvezian arrived in New York City in 1947, playing in various bands while studying at Juilliard. After two years in the U.S. Army, he eventually found himself in Puerto Rico in the jewelry business. But music called him back, and by 1974 he was playing piano at the Palmas del Mar resort. During this time, he made a crucial observation: people not only came to hear his music, but they also liked smoking cigars. Uvezian would purchase a few local cigars each night and place them on top of the piano for anyone who wanted to smoke.
“Customers and friends used to write me and ask me for the cigars,” Uvezian told Cigar Aficionado in an interview. “That’s when I said to myself that I better look at getting serious about this.”
Uvezian was introduced to Davidoff’s cigarmaker Hendrik “Henke” Kelner, and in 1987, his first cigars from Kelner were sold under the Bolero label in San Juan. Shortly after, he changed the cigar name to Avo and debuted them in New York City. The brand was created exclusively for the Davidoff shop.
Uvezian launched Avo across the U.S. in 1988, and in 1995, Davidoff purchased the distribution rights for the brand. In 10 years, Uvezian saw his brand grow from about 5,000 cigars in 1987 to about 3.2 million in 1997.
“He’s like family,” said Jeff Borysiewicz of Corona Cigar in Orlando. “He was family. He’s the godfather of my kids. He brought charisma and charm to the industry and people were attracted to him. He had the kind of magnetism I’d never seen. Avo spoke so many languages and had such an international life. He was incredible.”
Since the early-2000s, Uvezian has celebrated his birthday with a special, limited-edition cigar and a cigar party as well as a national tour. Though tour dates decreased as he got a little older, he usually made time for New York. Last year, Uvezian made an appearance in Manhattan for his 90th birthday.
“People always ask me, ‘Avo, what’s your secret?’ ” Uvezian said at the time. “And I tell them that every time you smoke cigars, you have given yourself another day of life. I think I’m going to be doing this until I’m 99 years old. That way, when I get to 99, I’ll say, ‘Well, I might as well go to 100.’ ”
He almost made it.
Avo Uvezian is survived by his wife, Nivia, his sons Robert, Jeffrey and Ronnie, and his daughter Karyn.