Jazz, German writer Joachim-Ernst Berendt found out years ago, is taken for granted in its homeland, the U.S.A.

"I was in Baltimore recently," Berendt noted, "and a cab driver was describing all the sights. He pointed out the U.S.S. Constitution, Edgar Allan Poe's grave, the statues of several generals.

"Then I started telling him about Billie Holiday, who grew up there. It was strange for a German to tell him about something in his own culture. He recognized it immediately. He was a black man, too."

Berendt, author of the recently published "Jazz: A Photo History," swallowed another spoonful of soup in a French-Vietnamese restaurant while a record of Beethoven's "Pathetique" sonata played in the background.

"Isn't it strange," he asked, "that we're sitting here talking about jazz and listening to Beethoven?

"Americans are ambivalent about jazz because of the race issue. They like the music but don't know how to accept it. You know when you talk to Americans about jazz, it's like talking about sex. They love it, but they want to keep it a secret."

Berendt has written 19 books on jazz, blues and contemporary classical music, including the world's most widely read book on jazz, "The Jazz Book -- From Rag to Rock," which has sold more than one million copies around the world.

He's also produced more than 250 albums, founded the American Folk Blues Festival and put on several jazz festivals.He has visited the U.S. about 30 times.

The jazz bug bit Berendt in Berlin in 1935 when he was 13.

"I was quite a radio fan," he recalled. "I got hooked listening to Benny Carter playing with the Ramblers."

But the Nazis didn't like jazz and began choking off all outlets for the music. Berendt was drafted into a panzer division. His father, a Lutheran minister and an anti-Nazi, was taken to Dachau concentration camp.

"I visited him while I was in the army," said Berendt. "The rest of my family went to Switzerland. Later, when I was in Russia, I got a letter saying he had died from an illness. But I knew better."

Berendt was injured on the Russian front and sent back to Germany near the end of the war. He made his way to Baden-Baden in the Allied Zone. After the war he helped found Sudwestfunk, the Southwestern German Radio and Television Network, where he is still employed. His jazz TV show is one of the longest running series on German television.

In 1976, Berendt spoke at a Smithsonian Institution Bicentennial conference of international scholars examining U.S. contributions to the world.

"Several of us said jazz was the most important American contribution," he said. "Not film, comic strips, the atom bomb, politics. Many American scholars took issue with us.

"Americans have a very special relationship to jazz. In one sense, they know it. But they take it for granted. In Europe it's so much of an art form that it's special. It's a music of freedom and tolerance."