Raised in Victoria, BC, John Fraser MacPherson played clarinet and piano during his formative years. Later he took up the alto and tenor, establishing himself first in Vancouver as an altoist in the bebop tradition before learning to appreciate the subtleties of Johnny Hodges. He stuck to the tenor from the early 1970s on, earning an international reputation, largely influenced by Lester Young, whom he revered.
MacPherson moved to Vancouver in 1948. In 1956-57 he studied in New York with Vincent James Abato (saxophone) and Henry Zlotnick (flute). He worked for 20 years in local nightclubs, among them the Palomar (1950-4, with the bands of Chuck Barber, Bob Reid, and Lance Harrison) and the Cave (1961-3 with Chris Gage, 1964-70 leading his own band), where he played with such visiting luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Tony Bennett and Duke Ellington. Concurrently he was a first-call studio musician (saxophone, flute, and clarinet) and occasionally played saxophone with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
For many years MacPherson pursued his jazz career largely on CBC radio and TV, initially as a member of the Ray Norris Quintet (circa 1951) and later as a featured sideman with Doug Parker and trombonist Dave Robbins on such shows as 'Jazz Workshop,' as well as fronting his own groups, including a quintet in the early 1960s featuring Carse Sneddon on trumpet and valve trombone, and Gage on piano. Those musicians were later replaced by Ian MacDougall on trombone and Parker on piano. He was heard on alto saxophone as the leader of a nonet in the so-called West Coast style on 'Jazz Workshop' and 1963-4 with a string orchestra in a CBC series of his own called 'The Pretty Sounds of Jazz' (later 'The Sounds of the Sixties').
In 1978, under the aegis of Overture Concerts, he made the first of an unprecedented four tours in the USSR -- his was the first North American jazz group to be invited back behind the former Iron Curtain. Other tours followed in 1981, 1984, and 1986. MacPherson performed under Radio Canada International sponsorship in Europe (Montreux, The Hague) in 1979. In Canada he has made several national tours and performed at most of the major festivals -- eg, the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1982 and 1984, the Edmonton Jazz Festival in 1984 and 1986, and regularly at the Vancouver Jazz Festival. He also has appeared on occasion in the USA (Concord and the Kool Jazz Festival in Detroit with Rosemary Clooney) and in 1986 performed in Australia.
MacPherson has remained a favourite on CBC radio jazz shows, among them 'Jazz Radio-Canada' and 'Jazz Beat,' and was host in the summer of 1977 for the former program's series devoted to the history of jazz in Canada. MacPherson was nominated for two Juno Awards, winning 'Best Jazz Album' in 1983 for his duo recording with Gannon (I Didn't Know about You). Besides work under his own name, MacPherson can be heard on recordings by Anita O'Day, Oliver Jones, Charles Mountford, Eiji Kitamura, Dave McMurdo and the Canadian Jazz All-Stars (featuring Jones, Ed Bickert, Jim Galloway, Terry Clarke and Dave Young).
MacPherson was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1987 and won the Oscar Peterson Trophy shortly before his death in 1993.