Benny Goodman, 77, a jazz clarinetist of dazzling talent who became "The King of Swing," a widely admired performer of Mozart and other classical composers, and a major force in American music and cultural life, died yesterday at his apartment in New York City. Death was attributed to cardiac arrest.

Goodman all but invented swing, whose wonderfully lusty and cheerful rhythms helped the world cope with the Great Depression of the 1930s. He was one of the first major white musicians to embrace jazz and the first to hire black musicians. He hired Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton for his orchestra in the mid-1930s and in 1934 he hired Fletcher Henderson as his arranger.

He personified the Big Band Era and his performance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August 1935 often is regarded as the birth of swing. His appearance at the Paramount Theater in New York in 1937 had thousands of young people standing in line at 6 a.m. in the January cold. Police were called to keep order when the concert goers started dancing in the aisles and tying up traffic outside. In 1938, Goodman gave a famous concert in Carnegie Hall in New York, a milestone in the widening acceptance of jazz.

The previous year, he recorded the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A Major with the Budapest String Quartet, thus becoming the first major artist to excel in both classical music and jazz. (One of his favorites was an inventive and charming number called "Bach Goes to Town.") In later years he commissioned works by such composers as Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith. He continued to play and record the classics for the rest of his life.

Goodman's appeal transcended boundaries and cultures. Of his numerous tours abroad, none was more impressive than a trip to the Soviet Union in 1962 under State Department auspices. Despite the official Kremlin view that jazz was an expression of capitalist decadence, the music was extremely popular in the Soviet Union.

The appearance of Goodman and his orchestra demonstrated this truth. The leadership was cordial -- Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev attended the opening concert in Moscow -- but the other audiences on the tour were ecstatic. In Leningrad, those fortunate enough to get tickets abandoned their usually decorous ways and began dancing.

Goodman, who appeared at Wolf Trap Farm Park just a week ago, was known as a taskmaster. Lionel Hampton once recalled the way Goodman could be playing a solo and still freeze an errant player with his stare, which was known as "the Goodman ray." And Goodman said he once saw a picture of himself with that look on his face and that it scared him, too.

He was as hard on himself as he was on others. "It isn't like the piano or violin -- you use your wind," he used to say. "Your body has to be in shape." Not only did he practice every day, but when he was 40 years old and entirely secure in his profession, he went so far as to change his technique entirely: a new system of using his mouth, a new way of using his fingers for which he had to have the old calluses removed by surgery and develop new ones -- all in the interest of still more flexibility and more precise control.

"It's always discouraging when you're trying to play good music," he said in an interview with The Washington Post in February. "It's a life of discouragement. But that's the way it goes. In the first place, you've got to meet that instrument every day in practice if you're serious about it . . . . "

Of course, Goodman was serious about it. From his old theme song, "Let's Dance," to his closing number, "Goodbye," he took all the care in the world. His performances of such songs as "After You've Gone," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Stompin' at the Savoy," "One O'Clock Jump," "Don't Be That Way" and "Sing, Sing, Sing" will always have a following, as will his recordings of Mozart and the other classicists.

In 1955, he received one of the greatest accolades that can come to a popular figure. Hollywood made a film of his life called "The Benny Goodman Story," with Steve Allen playing the musician.

Benjamin David Goodman was born in Chicago on May 30, 1909. He got his first musical education at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue. He also played in the band at Hull House, the famous community organization founded and operated by Jane Addams, and for two years he took private lessons from Franz Schoepp, the clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

When he was 13, the boy got his card in the musicians union. At 14, he left high school for a full-time career as a musician, and at 16 went to Los Angeles to play with the Ben Pollack orchestra in the Venice Ballroom. He recorded his first solo with Pollack's band on Dec. 17, 1926, in Chicago. In 1929 he was in the Pollack band in New York for the musical comedy "Hello Daddy." For the next five years he was a highly successful free-lance musician.

In 1934, with the help of the promoter, John Henry Hammond Jr., he formed a 12-piece band and hired Fletcher Henderson as his arranger. He began appearing on a nationwide radio program, NBC's "Let's Dance." His muscular rhythms were different from the "sweet music" of the time and were enormously popular. But because he was on the midnight segment of the show, his work was much better known in the West than in the East.

For that reason, a cross-country tour he began in 1935 started out disastrously. Few knew who he was and not many had heard his sound. All this changed as he got closer to California and the audiences that had stayed up to hear his midnight gigs on "Let's Dance." The grand finale -- more accurately, perhaps, the true beginning of the Goodman legend and the ascendency of swing -- was his famous concert at the Palomar Ballroom.

In addition to Hampton and Teddy Wilson, jazz greats who performed with Goodman included Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Bunny Berrigan, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Jess Stacy and singer Peggy Lee. He kept the orchestra together until the early 1940s and thereafter formed groups only as he needed them for specific projects.

He devoted more time to classical music. As early as 1938 he commissioned Bartok to compose "Contrasts," which Goodman performed in Carnegie Hall in 1939, with Bartok himself playing the piano and Bartok's fellow Hungarian, Joseph Szigeti, playing the violin. In 1947 and 1948, he commissioned concertos by Copland and Hindemith. He appeared with most of the major orchestras in this country as well as elsewhere in the world. Earlier this year he was rehearsing for a recording of a Brahms sonata.

In 1942, Goodman married Alice Hammond Duckworth, a sister of John Hammond. She died in 1978. Survivors include two daughters, Benjie and Rachel.

In recent years, Goodman's health began to fail. Back problems and an aneurysm both required surgery, and a pacemaker was implanted in his heart. Those developments failed to dim his enthusiasm.

"In a sense it's easier for me to put a band together now, providing I have the right material." On the other hand, standing up for two hours was increasingly difficult, he told The Post this year. "But," he added, "you manage that, you know."