Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin left this country 16 years ago in disgust. Racism, lack of artistic recognition and the breakup of his family had drained him.

Though he's since rebuilt his life in a Dutch village, Griffin, 51, back briefly for a jazz tour, says he misses the United States -- but he's discouraged by so many aspects of American life that he plans to remain in Europe.

"The Cities are falling down," he says, sitting in his cousins' new townhouse in Alexandria, resting from his nightly performances this week at Blues Alley.

"I went back to my old neighborhood in Chicago and saw shells. Beautiful architecture just left to waste.It looked like a bombed-out area.

"Even on Broadway I see it. The buildings are not well kept. It's the same kind of decay I see in London, Manchester and Liverpool. Not so much on the Continent, though.

"I've seen the French people come into affluence. Everybody is a two-car family. They have cleanup campaigns. And people over there vote. It's common for 80 percent (of those registered) to vote."

But he's still adjusting to being away from home. Even though he joined a colony of expatriate musicians, including Dexter Gordon, Kenny Clarke, Arthur Taylor, Kenny Drew and Benny Bailey, Griffin says he has missed his family (three grown children and two grandchildren) and the American way of doing things.

"I miss delivery services," says Griffin, whose speech cadence is sometimes as rapid as his machine-gun saxophone style. "You know, sending out for food and other things.Americans do everything fast.

"At first I was climbing the walls in Europe. I'd call the desk clerk in a hotel and he'd be out to lunch. The French people would say, 'Calm down. Have some lunch.'

"I never learned to relax until I went to Europe. Some people do it here through religion or meditation."

"It was years before I could eat French food. I was stinking up hotels cooking in my room -- you know, things like pig's feet, chitterlings, pork chops with onions and peppers."

But the saxophonist, who started his career at age 17 with Lionel Hampton and later played with Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, quickly warmed to an ardent European reception.

"I'd see my name up on the wall right along with Rubinstein," says the musician called the "Little Giant" because of the cavernous tone that surges from his 5 feet 6, 130-pound frame. "Everyone from stagehands to the people in charge would give me respect, call me masestro.

"People would take me home for dinner. That doesn't happen here, except with your family."

Griffin, his second wife and 11-year-old daughter live in a converted barn in Bergambacht, a 600-year-old village about 14 miles up the Rhine from Rotterdam.

Says Griffin: "It's beautiful country -- windmills, flowers everywhere, lovely old houses, churches."

After living 10 years in Paris and six in Bergambacht, he speaks only a smattering of French and a little Dutch. "Basically, I speak South Side Chicago English," he says with a laugh.

Griffin uprooted himself and left America after a series of reverses.

"My marriage was breaking up," he recalls. "The booking agents had decided that I had gone up a dead end and stopped. The critics were going for a different type music at that time. And there was a lot of racial trouble in the country.

"'Jaws' [Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis] and I had a group and were paying the rhythm section more than we made ourselves. So I said, 'Why stay here and suffer.'"

Griffin was encouraged by fellow saxophonist Dexter Gordon to return for a U.S. tour. The latter had come back from Europe in triumph in 1976.

So Griffin returned in 1978 for a brief tour and has already been back twice this year.

American audiences found that he still had a huge, grainy sound and played torrential melodies. His playing the ballads had depended and his sense of harmony was more refined.

"The places I've been, there's been such good reaction," he said, jabbing the air with his hand and bouncing on a straight-backed chair. "This music being American means Americans are better able to relate to it.

"Now don't get me wrong. Europeans really appreciate the music. They know more about the musicians' music and their lives than the musicians. They pull out dates on things you forgot you did. This music magnetizes Europeans.

"But Americans are more spontaneous. I can feel the thirst for the music when I walk out on stage. Americans talk to the musicians while they're playing. They encourage them to play harder. And the musicians respond. It's fun playing for Americans."

"But John Arnold Griffin says he will continue living in Europe because the pace of life is slower and the society in general has a high regard for artists.

Says Griffin: "I have to play music because that's the meaning of my life. Music is a life force."