Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville, now part of Niagara Falls Ontario. At three years of age he began to show an interest in music and at five began piano lessons. His mother, Charlotte Washington, was born in Drummondville, Ontario. His father, Robert T. Dett was from the United States. As a child Nathaniel was encouraged by his mother to memorize passages from Shakespeare, Longfellow and Tennyson. In 1893 the family moved to Niagara Falls, New York. At about fourteen he played the piano for his local church and he studied at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music from 1901 to 1903. He continued studies at the Lockport Conservatory and the Oberlin Conservatory. It was in the latter that he was introduced to the idea of using spirituals in classical music. He toured as a concert pianist and began to write piano compositions. In 1907 he completed his Bachelor of Music degree with a major in composition and piano.
He began teaching at Lane College in Tennessee and then held a tenured position in Lincoln Institute in Jefferson Missouri. During this time he wrote choral and piano pieces for his students. He became the first black director of music at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he remained from 1913 to 1932. During this time he founded the Hampton Choral Union, the Musical Arts Society, the Hampton Institute Choir and School of Music.
Dett continued to study music. From 1920 to 1921 he studied in Harvard University winning two prizes for his compositions. In 1929 he travelled to France to study with Nadia Boulanger and then earned a Masters degree at the Eastman School of music.
From 1924 to 1926 Dett was president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, the oldest association in the United States dedicated to the preservation and advocacy of African American music.
During the Second World War Dett joined the United Service Organization (USO) as choral advisor and travelled with the USO chorus. He died on 2 October 1943 and was buried beside his wife in the town of his birth, Niagara Falls Ontario.
The chapel of the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls Ontario carries his name and has been designated a national historic site.
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