In 1961 he began studying clarinet with Theo Loevendie and teaching himself saxophone because jazz was not yet taught formally in the Netherlands. In effect, he learned by playing with experienced musicians, such as pianists Rob Madna and Frans Elsen, and picked up his knowledge of harmony and arrangement as a young member of the orchestras of Kurt Edelhagen and Peter Herbolzheimer, and of the Skymasters.
In 1964 Povel won the Loosdrecht Jazz Concours with the Martin Haak Quartet. Critics called the 17-year-old the surprise of the festival. This was the start of his career as a professional musician.
In 1966 Povel played with The New Sound Incorporated, founded by Bertil Peereboom Voller and Henk Elkerbout. This septet gave school concerts and did radio and TV broadcasts for TROS and AVRO broadcasting companies. Povel was a finalist at the 1966 International Modern Jazz Festival in Vienna, where the judges included Cannonball Adderley and Mel Lewis.
In the same year, Cees Smal, Herman Schoonderwalt, and Frans Elsen set up the Hobby Orchestra, later named the Netherlands Jazz Orchestra. Povel was invited to join the orchestra as a saxophonist and flutist. The orchestra rehearsed mostly late at night and only played their own compositions and arrangements.
In 1969 Povel went to Munich with Rob Franken, where he met trumpet player Dusko Goykovich, who invited him to join his Summit Quintet, starring drummer Philly Joe Jones. The quintet did several European tours.
In 1971 Povel stood in for American Johnny Griffin with the legendary Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland big band.
In 1972 Povel played with the famous Kurt Edelhagen orchestra.
The Bohemia Jazzclub in Amsterdam organised the Musicians Award. Povel was the first runner-up. A year later he won the award.
In 1973 he toured the United States of America with the world famous big band of trumpet player Maynard Ferguson, with whom he also recorded several albums.
In 1974 the Municipality of The Hague honoured Povel with the first Hague Jazz Award.
From 1971 to 1985 Povel was a member of Peter Herbolzheimer's Rhythm Combination and Brass, often as a soloist. The band toured frequently and did many radio and television performances and album recordings. During the same period he played in George Grunz’s band and in the Jiggs Whigham Sextet. In the Netherlands he played, among others, in the bands of Rob Madna, Frans Elsen, and Cees Slinger. He also played in various occasional orchestras for radio and television.
Since 1970 NOS Radio has entered Povel frequently in the in the EBU and Nordring Festivals. In 1981 he received the Nordring Radio Soloist Award from the European Radio Union. Over the last forty years, he has also frequently performed for radio and played at many European and Dutch jazz festivals.
From 1978 until their break-up at the end of the 1980s, Povel was a member of, and frequent soloist in, the AVRO radio orchestra The Skymasters which also featured many top foreign soloists.
When in 1978 several Dutch music academies introduced light-music and jazz programs, Povel was invited to teach jazz improvisation at the Rotterdam Conservatory. Later he also taught at conservatoriums in Zwolle, The Hague, and Hilversum. Since 1990 he has taught exclusively at the Hilversum Music Academy, which merged with the Sweelinck Conservatory, now named the Conservatory of Amsterdam, as part of Amsterdam School of the Arts.
He is much sought-after as a teacher by Dutch students and by young foreign musicians, who come to the Netherlands especially to study with him. So many of his students have gone on to make names for themselves in the jazz world that Povel has been called "one of the important sources of the last two generations of excellent jazz musicians." He also frequently gives workshops and master classes abroad.
Povel has successfully maintained a balance between teaching and performing. He is a guest soloist for the Metropole Orchestra, the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra, and various foreign orchestras, including BBC Big Band, UMO Orchestra Helsinki, and BRT Orchestra. He has played in the front line with jazz icons such as Art Farmer, Bennie Bailey, Woody Shaw, and Jimmy Knepper.
Since 2000 he has been a member of the American trumpet player John Marshall’s quintet, which performs, with varying rhythm sections, in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland. In the same year he helped found a quintet that includes bassist Ruud Jacobs and pianist Peter Beets, which still plays regularly and accompanies Rita Reys in the Netherlands and Belgium.
In the summer of 2004 Ferdinand celebrated his 40th anniversary as a jazz musician. He received a Royal Honor as a Member in the Order of Orange-Nassau. He formed an anniversary quintet with, among others, American tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb, which gave a concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival.
In 2005 he received the Meer Jazz Award from the Municipality of Haarlemmermeer for his important contribution to Dutch jazz. The following years saw tours with the American Songbook and a Jazz Impulse tour. He also performed with the Netherlands Concert Jazz Band, today the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw.
Ferdinand Povel's discography includes over one hundred record and CD albums to which he has contributed as a soloist.
In 2011 Povel received The VPRO/Boy Edgar Award, Holland's most prestigious jazz-award.