Nancy Ochsenschlager doesn’t like to miss anything.
She is deeply embedded in New Orleans’ cultural community: brass band music, second-line parades, opera, theater, film, ballet — she is passionate about it all.
“Any night of the week, there’s four or five things I could go to,” she said recently, sitting in a home that is a shrine to traditional cultures. “There’s always a conflict. I want to be everywhere.”
But for the past month, the 76-year-old Ochsenschlager, a retired associate producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, hasn’t been out much. Instead, she’s been recuperating from a violent carjacking.
On May 10, she attended guitarist John Rankin’s show at the Columns Hotel, then drove to her home near City Park about 11 p.m. As she stepped out of her car, two young men, their faces partly obscured, attacked her.
One struck her and gashed her head with a blunt object. She fell; her glasses went flying. The assailants kicked her viciously, snatched her cellphone and keys, and drove off in her car, leaving her bloody and dazed.
In the overall scheme of New Orleans crime, her “event,” as she calls it, was just another statistic in a spate of carjackings and armed robberies across the city.
But for victims, such crimes are life-altering.
Four weeks later, Ochsenschlager is “on the healing path.” The staples have been removed from her scalp. She can walk, gingerly, with the aid of a cane or walker, though discomfort from soft tissue damage and bruised bones persists.
Her regular routine now includes physical therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture sessions. She has not resumed driving.
Compounding the physical effects is the emotional toll. For Ochsenschlager, being cut off from the culture that inspired her to move to New Orleans 41 years ago has been especially difficult.
“I’m accepting it now, because I know I have to heal,” she said. “I’m pacing myself. But I shall return.”
In response to the violence visited upon Ochsenschlager and other friends, her godson Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis, who took over the Wild Magnolias tribe of Mardi Gras Indians following the 2015 death of his father, Big Chief Bo Dollis, has organized a Stop the Violence concert and youth rally Sunday at the Carver Theater, 2101 Orleans Ave.
Scheduled performers include the Wild Magnolias, Tonya Boyd Cannon and the Red Hot Brass Band. Admission is free; the event kicks off at 4 p.m.
Ochsenschlager plans to attend as much of the show as her stamina allows. She’s getting her groove back, slowly.
Friends took her to the children’s opera “Brundibar” at the National World War II Museum, a benefit concert for singer Leigh “Little Queenie” Harris at Snug Harbor, and a John Boutte performance at City Park’s Pavilion of the Two Sisters.
Listening to Boutte sing on Thursday, she said, was “very good for my soul.”
‘I never left New Orleans’
Ochsenschlager grew up in Illinois. She sang in the concert choir in high school and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she earned a nursing degree.
Nursing allowed her to work for a year, save money and then spend a year or more traveling — in Europe, Japan or South America.
After an accident, she gave up nursing to peddle her homemade bow ties and neckties at art fairs. In January 1976, she drove to New Orleans to drop off a friend, planning to continue on to San Francisco.
She decided to stick around through Mardi Gras and sell neckties. At the French Market one day, she met Quint Davis, a producer of a fledgling festival called the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He bought a tie.
Upon learning she was from Ann Arbor and was acquainted with John Sinclair, a ’60s writer, radical and rock manager, Davis invited her to his nearby office to try to call Sinclair.
In the office, Ochsenschlager saw a picture of the Wild Magnolias featuring Bo Dollis and his bandmates in their feathered and beaded “suits.” She had no idea what it was.
Davis, who had produced the Wild Magnolias’ first recording, invited her to meet him at an Indian practice the following Sunday in Central City.
“So here’s the little blonde in her Michigan van, tooting down to Second and Dryades,” Ochsenschlager recalled, laughing. “Quint never showed up. But I walked in to Bo Dollis chanting, and I never left New Orleans.”
Dollis’ voice, a powerful, deeply soulful rasp, affected her like a spiritual experience. “It felt very familiar,” she said. “I completely related to it, like I’d been there before.”
She decided to stay in New Orleans. During the 1976 Jazz Fest, she sold neckties at a craft booth and volunteered to answer the phone in the staff trailer.
Over the next couple of years, she bounced back and forth to Ann Arbor before finally moving to New Orleans for good. The city’s Mardi Gras Indians, second-line parades and brass bands appealed to the folklorist in her.
“Traditions are a big part of my life. I really felt the depth of tradition in New Orleans. I was raised in the Midwest, where there’s nothing like this,” she said.
Despite her outsider status, she was accepted by such Mardi Gras Indian legends as Tootie Montana and George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry. She grew especially close to Dollis and his family.
Given the pronunciation difficulties that her last name presents, successive generations of musicians and Mardi Gras Indians came to know her as “Miss Nancy” or “Nancy O.”
“I feel very fortunate to have been so accepted and incorporated into this culture,” she said. “It really gripped me 41 years ago, to the point where I felt like it was my soul. And it still is.”
Within a few years, she had progressed from Jazz Fest volunteer to associate producer, overseeing construction of the Fair Grounds site and stages, the food and crafts, the cleanup — everything except the music and the marketing. The festival “is in my heart,” she said. “I grew with it.”
In 2005, 29 years after first volunteering, she retired from Jazz Fest. Her retirement gifts included a “Necktie Nancy” bobblehead doll in her likeness and a social aid and pleasure club-style banner dedicated to “Nancy O.”
But she couldn’t quit Jazz Fest entirely. She still serves as the festival’s weather liaison. During this year’s rains, she was on the top floor of the Fair Grounds grandstand with meteorologists, relaying the grim forecasts to Davis and his staff.
Her semiretirement does leave plenty of time to pursue her passions, though. For three months a year, she lives in a remote village on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. And in New Orleans, there was always her nonstop schedule of music and cultural events.
At least until May 10.
‘I just have to chill’
No one would describe Ochsenschlager as naive. After decades of traveling the world and working on major music festivals, she considers herself “streetwise, big time. I don’t carry purses. Everything is in deep pockets. I’m very aware all the time.”
In all the years she roamed New Orleans at night, she was never affected by crime, until it caught up with her in her own driveway. “That’s why it was such a shock to me. I have been in every neighborhood, all the time, and I had never felt the fear,” she said.
Her neighborhood near City Park “has always been very quiet and safe. I would never have guessed this would happen here.”
But it did.
In the moments after the attack, “running on adrenaline,” she got into her house with a spare key and called 911 on a land line. Third District cops and an ambulance arrived quickly. She spent the rest of the night at a hospital. A nephew picked her up in the morning.
Fortunately, no bones were broken. And “those kids could have had guns,” she said. “I could be gone.
“I was numb at first. It was surreal. Because I was fairly affected physically, I was worried about my body, and my mobility.”
Depending on how quickly she regains full mobility, she may have to miss the upcoming Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in upstate New York, where she’s worked for the past 38 years.
“The fact that I might not be able to be there … I guess that’s sadness more than anything. I haven’t felt real anger or hatred. I don’t think anger is any good for anyone. It just takes a toll on you. You have to have unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness in order to heal.”
Two weeks after the carjacking, her 2005 Toyota Avalon, with her keys still in the ignition, was discovered trashed and crashed two blocks from the Carver Theater, site of the Sunday anti-crime concert and youth rally she inspired.
“It’s a lost generation here,” she said of the violent crimes being committed by teenagers. “I’m trying to live positively, and with hope that troubled teens get more help, and that things turn around in this city with education, mentoring, recreation.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but at least it can start reversing. It’s in a real crisis mode right now.”
Being victimized herself “was a wake-up call about what’s important in life,” she said.
Topping that list are the friendships that have helped sustain her, and the “outpouring of care and concern and love. It’s been a big part of my healing. So is music.”
Going forward, she said, she will not, cannot stay away from it.
“I look at the newspaper and see everything I’m missing. But I just have to chill right now. It’s still out there, and as soon as I physically can do it, I’ll be back doing what I’ve always done.”
Her mind-set reflects a line from the traditional Mardi Gras Indian chant “Indian Red,” sung countless times by both Bo and Gerard Dollis: “I won’t bow down.”
“I don’t want to live with fear,” she said. “I want to live my life as freely as I always have. But I’ll be more careful.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.