Ella Fitzgerald, without question.
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Thats a hard one to answer because at any given time a female singer with any good material will move you. But if I had to I would say Ella,Vaughan,Bessie Smith and Kelly Smith,Holiday and Washington. There are more just to early in the morning. Also try some Lena Horn not a true Blues or jazz singer but a fabulous voice. I guess we have to stick to he old standards becaue your not going to find them on American idol.
Ella was a great jazz singer as was sarah vaughn. In a big band format Ella was IMHO better as she always sang in her head voice and could really swing. In small groups I prefer sarah as she sang from her chest and throat which is really great to listen to with a scotch in hand. Ella was NOT a blues singer period. Sara was a pianist and a stylist and had more in common with bop and harmonics than she did the blues. Billie Holiday sang ( stylized - whatever) from a sense of the deep blues which is why she shines with people like lester young etc. IMHO these three represent the cream of the crop of three different schools : swing, bop, and blues. The divisions are not clear cut but they are meaningful. - Jim
There are too many good ones to limit it to one...and I agree with all that have been mentioned.
My personal female Jazz vocalist that I listen to nearly every week would be.
Ella, Sarah, Carmen, Shirley, Rosemary Clooney (try the Johnny Mercer tribute CD, Helen Merrill. Believe it or not, Anne Murray did a CD of standards(kinda Jazz, but not realy) a decade or more ago that is quite good....a review from the magazine Stereo Review called her the female Frank Sanatra on that CD.
Ella of course, including a vote for best "scat" style.
Closer to this era, I have really enjoyed Kellye Gray as an obscure talent. Her "Standards in Gray" is a hugely overlooked performance. What I find interesting about Ms. Gray is that she also uses her voice as an instrument - with some remarkable chops I might add. There's a cover of "All Blues" on this disc with her doing the trumpet parts on vocal. That takes a lot of...guts. She pulls it off though, and she can scat too.
Sarah Vaughan had one of the great vocal instruments of the last century. That high bari to mezzo range of hers was peerless. She also had a bop saxophonist's understanding of harmony, phrasing and rhythmic development that so many emulate but none equal. Live, she would make you swoon with her sweeping, multi-octave portamentos. I witnessed the entirety of Carnegie Hall heave a communal sigh as she glided through an introduction of "How High the Moon". Still, she could mail-in lyrics from time to time.
Sarah Vaughan, Ella, and Anita O'Day really do it for me. Carmen McCrae is also great.
I saw Anita O'Day a few years ago at the Iridium on Broadway, NYC a few blocks from where I live. Being in her 80's it was not the greatest, but I was thrilled to see her and there were a few moments when her old magic shone through. I never realized she was still alive.
Gentlemen, Thanks again for all the great responses. I've just ordered two cds... "Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown" circa 1954 Universal Records (Japan) & "No Count Sarah" circa 1958 Mercury (Japan). Both are recent Japanese remasters. I'm looking forward to hearing them. Too bad the Japanese remaster of "At Mr Kelly's" circa 1958 was backordered. I thought that that would be one of her better releases. I plan on buying a few cds every couple weeks. Shirley Horn and Anita O'day are on my short list, among others mentioned. Best wishes, Stan