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Lockport, New York
By Ann Marie Linnabery
A few weeks ago, Niagara Discoveries examined the life and career of Lockport entertainer Charlie Case. Just about the time that Case was getting his start as a comedian, accomplished musician Robert Nathaniel Dett was born on Oct. 11, 1882, in Drummondville, Ontario (now part of Niagara Falls, Canada). His father, Robert T. Dett, was a U.S. citizen and his mother, Charlotte Washington Dett, was Canadian. Charlotte’s mother may have arrived there via the Underground Railroad.
All of the Detts were well-educated and musically inclined. Robert Nathaniel, who usually used his first initial and middle name, starting playing the piano at the age of 3, and by 5 years old he was able to play pieces by ear that his older brothers were learning by sheet music. In addition to music, his mother also promoted the reading of English and American literature, while his maternal grandmother sang to him the Negro spirituals that she had learned as a slave in America.
When Dett was 11 years old, his family moved across the river to Niagara Falls, N.Y., where his father managed the Keystone Hotel at 333 Main St. (approximately where the old Rainbow Mall is today). Dett continued his piano lessons with a local teacher and by age 14 was working as a bellhop at the Cataract Hotel. Within a short time, Dett’s ability as a piano player became known at the Cataract and he was soon playing in the lobby of the hotel.
In 1901, Dett began his studies at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music in Lockport. This school had two studios, one at 77 Pine St. and the other at 132 Walnut St. Dett attended the Conservatory for two years and continued to play at the Cataract Hotel during that time. In 1902 he composed a piano march and two-step, The Cave of the Winds, to commemorate the wonder of the world that he gazed upon each day. When he finished his course of study at Halstead’s, Dett began the next phase of his education at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.
At the end of his first year at Oberlin, the management of the Cataract Hotel allowed Dett to use one of the large rooms for a benefit recital to help raise funds to continue his studies at the Conservatory. One of the people at the recital was Frederic H. Goff, a Cleveland lawyer, banker and philanthropist. He was so impressed with Dett’s performance, he offered to pay the young man’s expenses so he could continue his education at Oberlin.