He was a nice Jewish boy from Chicago, the son of a tailor from Warsaw, and he played the clarinet. The experienced jazz musicians aboard the excursion boat were skeptical of the slight, bespectacled twelve-year-old in short pants, union card or no union card. ''Keep away from the instruments, kid!'' they shouted. ''Get off the boat!'' Undaunted, the lad took out his horn and started to play. Case closed: two minutes later, Benny Goodman had joined Bix Beiderbecke's band. From that humble dockside audition grew the career of one of the century's most influential jazzmen and most enduring icons. It was Benny who set the teenagers of the 1930s stomping at the Savoy and sing, sing, singing with his soaring, exhilarating swing music; it was Benny who broke the color line in music by integrating his band with the likes of Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson (''I'm selling music, not prejudice,'' he said); it was Benny who brought jazz to Carnegie Hall, confirming its status as an art form. Long before he died of an apparent heart attack in New York City last week, at 77, Goodman's place in jazz-- and American history--had been assured. His men called him the Professor, and with his rimless glasses and his % apple-cheeked visage, he might have passed for an academic. Until, that is, he picked up the clarinet. Goodman's dedication was fierce. Nobody else in jazz played the clarinet with such technical brilliance or controlled emotion, and Goodman expected nothing less from his band. Musicians who fell short were subjected to ''the ray.'' ''He'd look over his glasses and stare at you --really nail you down with his eyes,'' remembers Vibraphonist Hampton, a member with Pianist Wilson and Drummer Gene Krupa of the seminal Goodman Quartet, which introduced a chamber-music approach to jazz. ''And all the time he'd be making some of the most difficult passages on his clarinet. He wouldn't stop playing, and he wouldn't stop glaring.'' Goodman's relentless drive had its roots in his impoverished childhood, for music was a passport out of the dark hallways and unheated basement flats in which his immigrant parents were trying to raise eleven children. At age nine, Benny got a clarinet. First at the neighborhood Kehelah Jacob synagogue, then at Jane Addams' Hull House and in private lessons with a member of the Chicago Symphony, he applied himself so diligently that at 16, he was a full-fledged member of Ben Pollack's band, one of the best jazz groups in Chicago.
He made his way to New York, where he was soon in demand as a sideman, earning up to $400 a week even as the Depression got under way. In 1933, he met John Hammond, a descendant of Commodore Vanderbilt's, who backed up his love for jazz with a considerable amount of cash. A year later, with underwriting from Hammond, Goodman formed his first band, which opened at Billy Rose's Music Hall in New York City. It was too intense and driving for a public conditioned to syrupy hotel orchestras. But for all its kick-up-your- heels abandon, Goodman's group was as highly disciplined as Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony. The eight- and 16-bar call-and-response choruses, sung out lustily by the saxophones, trumpets and trombones, supported wild improvisational flights by Goodman, Trumpeter Harry James and Drummer Krupa. The big breakthrough came at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. ''I called out some of our big Fletcher Henderson arrangements,'' remembered Goodman, ''and the boys seemed to get the idea.'' The crowd stopped dancing and rushed the bandstand. The swing era had begun, and Benny, then and thereafter, was its king. In 1937, he earned $125,000, while President Franklin D. Roosevelt received $50,000; like Babe Ruth, he was having a better year. In | 1938, the Goodman band (along with players from the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands, including Basie) played its unprecedented, historic date in Carnegie Hall, moving jazz up the social as well as the musical scale. Just before he went on, Goodman was asked how long an intermission he wanted. ''I don't know,'' he replied. ''How much does Toscanini get?'' Tastes changed after World War II. The big bands became dinosaurs. Somewhat petulantly, Goodman decried bop and other forms of modern jazz, even though he had blazed the way with his trio, quartet and sextet for such groups as the Modern Jazz Quartet. Later he would denigrate rock, even though, in his ability to inspire mass mania, he had been a prototypical rock star. He always seemed uneasy at being pigeonholed, and made a point of emphasizing his classical bona fides. He performed and recorded Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings with the Budapest String Quartet in the '30s, and commissioned both Bela Bartok's knotty Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano and Aaron Copland's perky Clarinet Concerto, among other works. Ever aloof, Goodman was hard to get to know. ''I remember we'd be talking, you know, real small talk, and he'd ask a question,'' James once recalled. ''While you were answering, he'd have turned away and was thinking about music.'' Goodman reserved most of his free time for his wife Alice (Hammond's sister) and their two children at their Manhattan apartment or Connecticut retreat. This year it appeared that he was enjoying a resurgence. In March, PBS broadcast a special for which he fronted a band and sailed through such signature tunes as Let's Dance, Stealin' Apples and King Porter Stomp. The years had not diminished him much. There was the same smooth finger work, the same rhythmic assurance, the same heady, insistent, sweet tone that could cut through the thickest arrangements and roughest riffs. ''I just don't think I ever lost my enthusiasm for music,'' he said, but he did not have to put it into words. His real voice was his clarinet, which proclaimed his unmistakable passion with every note it sang, sang, sang.